The Role of Self Image in Video Game Play

After commenting about why I used to love playing Sims, I found this interesting article. It’s about your choice of games and motivations is heavily depends on how much the game can allow you to experience more personally.


So why do you think you choose to play the games you do? NO! WRONG ANSWER! Well, actually, you’re probably mostly right about that, but an upcoming article in Psychological Science suggests that your choice of games and your motivation to keep playing them may have something to do with how well they allow you to experience something deeper and more personal.

In the article, Andrew Przybylski (who sent me an advance copy so I could read it myself) and his co-authors hypothesize that we’re motivated to play video games to the extent that they allow us to sample our “ideal self characteristics,” especially when there’s a large gap between our ideal selves and who we actually think we are. This could help explain why people are attracted to games in a way that’s unique to the medium.

Przybylski and his colleagues tested this theory in a couple of experiments in which they had gamers self-report their personality (using a standard “Big 5” personality measure) in three contexts:

1. As they think they are IRL
2. As the type of person would like to ideally be IRL
3. As the type of person they felt like while playing a certain game

They found that we apparently enjoy games most when they let us feel like an idealized version of ourselves (i.e., #2 and #3 above are similar), and that effect is greatest when there’s a big discrepancy with our ideal self and our perceived self (i.e., #1 and #2 are dissimilar).

So if I fantasize about being a loquacious, extroverted type of person, I feel better about myself when I’m able to play a game that lets me do that even though in reality I get tongue-tied in public. Or if I strive to be a more conscientious master of details and micromanagement, I might prefer a real-time strategy game over a first person shooter.

You may think this is a bit obvious, but I think some of the implications are profound for game designers, especially those working on role-playing games. We’re all probably familiar with the binary “Do you murder the puppy or do you help the puppy?” morality choices in some such games.

Many of my favorite games in this genre include choices or developments that were much more complicated than that. Taking Przybylski’s research to heart, effective choices in these games are going to be the ones that allow let players adopt a much wider spectrum of personality, desires, values, and judgments.

I won’t share any spoilers, but those of you who have made it to the end of Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be familiar with a good example of this. It provides choices that allow you to have Adam –and through him yourself– weigh the importance of freedom, progress, purity, justice, honesty, and the like.

Similarly, many paths in Dragon Age 2 ask you to create a persona that reflects varying emphasis on loyalty, dogmatism, anarchy, and justice. And while there’s something to be said about “playing the dark side” in these games for fun, one could hypothesize that that kind of thrill comes most strongly from playing something equally complicated, just in the opposite direction from your ideal self.

But there’s more. I haven’t played Bioware’s new Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG yet, but from what I’ve heard there are some improvements to that game suggested by the above research. In keeping with the Star Wars tradition, the game lets you play on either end of the “light side” or “dark side” morality spectrum. But as is common with such systems, meeting certain thresholds of good or evil are required to use certain equipment and abilities. You get light or dark points by role-playing certain actions, so most players are on the lookout for ways to boost their standing.

The problem with this is that it may not only over simplify the role-playing in the game, but dangling a carrot from such choices the game may actively discourage players from exploring more subtle choices and consequences that let them feel more like their idealized self and thus motivate them to continue playing.

So, game writers take note. When you’re dreaming up your game’s stable of complex supporting characters, don’t leave the player character out of the action.

We all love trying on different hats in the way that only video games allow, but some of us have very oddly shaped heads.

[Jamie Madigan examines the overlap of psychology and video games at He can be reached at]

Przybylski, A., Weinstein, N., Kou, M., Lynch, M. & Ryan, R. (in press). The Ideal Self At Play: The Appeal of Video Games That Let You Be All You Can Be. Manuscript in Preparation Psychological Science.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Andrew Allerton
    Feb 08, 2012 @ 16:49:18

    I found this to be an interesting read. I have felt this way in many of the role-playing games that I have played. I wanted to address the part of your post where you talked about The Old Republic, as this is the game I am playing for this class. The way I have been playing the game so far more closely matches what you described in #3. I am playing on the empire side and a dark side character, but I don’t always choose dark side decisions just to gain the dark side points. During conversations in the game in addition to gaining dark or light side points you can gain companion points. So in some cases I find that rather than going for dark side points, I choose to make a decision that my companion favors instead. So while they have made it a requirement to ultimately choose a side of light or dark, you still have room and reasons to make decisions that go counter to the side you have chosen.


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