Self- portrait?

by Michael Todd

photography by mckenzie james

If you’re a gamer with an online avatar, you might be telling people more about your personality than you think. Even if you took pains to craft an avatar that you felt wasn’t like you, unconsciously you may have created one that’s an accurate portrait of how you view yourself. So much for anonymity.

While online avatars are rarely a 100 per cent reflection of their creators, they are often close enough to provide more hints about their crafters’ personalities than they realize, according to a recent York University study published in the Personality and Social Science Bulletin.

In the digital world, we think we can create characters to reflect or suppress our real-world identities, but research by Katrina Fong, a York PhD candidate in psychology, shows that online aliases are often based on how we perceive ourselves away from the computer as well as in front of it. In other words, who we are in real life does to some extent drive our choices in deciding how to represent ourselves online.

“I’m generally interested in how individuals use media to better understand others and themselves,” she says.
Fong and her colleagues recruited 100 students and asked them to fill out a personality survey which gauged the “big five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. After that, participants went into a computer lab where they were asked to create their own avatars using, an online tool that creates simple, two-dimensional characters. Students were able to customize their avatars according to gender, skin tone, hair type, clothing and accessories. Half of the participants were told the avatar should represent who they really are, while the other half were told the avatar didn’t need to look like them.

A second group of approximately 200 participants – ­unrelated to the first group – reviewed the first group’s avatars by filling out a questionnaire that evaluated their characteristics. Participants were asked how strongly they would or would not want to become friends with the creator of that character.

Fong found those who ranked high on agreeableness, for example, were more likely to have given their avatars features that would prompt others to befriend them. And people who self-reported as extraverted, agreeable and conscientious were more likely to be accurately predicted based on their avatar, while people who said they were more neurotic secured less accurate predictions.

Additionally, Fong’s analysis of the data showed that people could detect how anxious, outgoing or agreeable someone was by his or her avatar. What could not be detected by looking at others’ avatars was how conscientious or open to new experiences people were.

Avatars with smiles, oval faces, brown hair and open eyes were more likely to be interpreted as friendly, while those with black hair, short hair, a hat, sunglasses or any expression other than a smile were seen as less friendly.
Curiously, Fong says sweaters were the only accessory choice that made a character seem more welcoming. (She speculates they may connote warmth.)

“It’s important to think of the context of these studies,” says Fong. “Online life is broad and people can engage in a ­number of activities, from leisure to socialization. People’s motivations may change based on what kind of activity they’re engaged in, so we should be careful not to overgeneralize the results from one study that examined one particular set of circumstances.”  ■

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