Put simply, the Proteus Effect happens when an avatar behaves in line with the stereotype suggested by the appearance of that avatar. In other words players behave in the ways the appearance of their avatar suggests they should.
How realistic does an avatar need to be in order for the Proteus Effect to be significant? What aspects of an avatar are important in creating the Proteus effect? How much does my avatar have to look like me in order for me to feel it is me?
There’s probably some sort of continuum between an avatar that I can’t identify with at all and an avatar that is me. So what is the threshold for useful application of the Proteus Effect?
Like most things, the answer depends of course. It depends not only on the capabilities of the game (and its designers), but it also depends on the purpose of the game as well as the players.
I’m sure it is no coincidence that avatars in games for children are almost exclusively cartoonish. Kids like to customize their characters, but it seems to me that customization for kids is more about outfits, accessories (including ears, tails, hair, etc.) than it is about making the character look like the self. An adult audience is likely to be more interested in creating some reasonable facsimile, so for them the ability to create a character that is effectively a caricature of themselves would hold more appeal.
Here I would suggest that the more ‘serious’ the message, the more realistic the avatar, as a general rule. At least, a more serious message should probably exclude silly kinds of customization. If you allow customization, then a game about obesity probably shouldn’t include something like clown makeup or clown clothes. It might work, but I would want to do some extensive user testing before I tried it. Most of the time our budgets are limited when we build serious games, so why take the risk?
There is an interesting article that came out some years ago that looked at what an effect called the “uncanny valley”. It talks about characters in general, but I’m sure the same ideas apply to avatars as well. The author observes that our association with various characters increases as the characters become more “human”. Pixar has done a fantastic job of that – they managed to create mother and child characters out of lamps – and they don’t even have faces, yet we still feel for them. Put eyes on almost anything and we find ways to identify with it. This connection increases as the character becomes more and more realistic, but as we get really close to ‘real’, something happens, and it suddenly becomes quite disturbing. The author postulates that this is why we are bothered by zombies. The author called this disconnection the ‘uncanny valley’. The same thing applies to avatars – I think it’s important to know about this effect and to make sure that avatar customization can’t create characters that fall into the uncanny valley or it will interfere with our ability to deliver on the message of the game.
Bryant, D. (2005). The Uncanny Valley: Why are monster-movie zombies so horrifying and talking animals so fascinating? Retrieved Jan 1, 2005, from http://www.arclight.net/~pdb/nonfiction/uncanny-valley.html