The Science of Gaming: Is Your Avatar's Height Holding You Back?

This is the first instalment of "The Science of Gaming", a series that will amaze and enlighten you all with scientific studies on the topic of gaming. Warning, this article contains educational content!

According to one scientific study your avatar's height and attractiveness may be linked to success in World of Warcraft. The study by Yee and Bailenson (2007) explores a concept called the Proteus effect. The Proteus effect, named after the shapeshifting Greek god, is the idea that when we use an avatar our behaviour changes to match our avatar.

The Proteus effect is based on self-perception theory, which states that we infer our attitudes from our appearance and behaviour. This may seem counterintuitive, as it seems out attitudes should guide our actions. However, this is backed up by scientific evidence. For example, people view sports teams that wear black uniforms as being more aggressive. When people are themselves asked to wear black uniforms and play a game they will behave more aggressively. The theory is that they look at themselves wearing the black uniform and say, I must be aggressive. They behave more aggressively as a result. The Proteus effect takes this idea but applies it to an avatar in a virtual space. In other words, our avatar is like a uniform that we wear.

The researchers looked at how the appearance of a player's avatar in World of Warcraft related to player success. In general, attractiveness and height are associated with a more outgoing personality. Would playing a taller, more attractive avatar cause a person to play the game in a more outgoing fasion? The results suggest that this may be the case. The researchers found that on average, taller and more attractive avatars tended to be associated with higher character levels than shorter avatars. However, this was not the case for shorter characters such as gnomes and dwarfs. Attractiveness was associated with lower levels on average when an avatar was short. The researchers theorized that this might be because these characters are viewed as being more cute and childlike, rather than more competent.

As you may have guessed there are a few problems with assuming that this effect is totally due to the Proteus effect. One explanation is that people chose avatars based on their own personality. In other words people that are more likely to reach higher levels also prefer taller more attractive characters. A second possibility is that other people will behave more positively toward someone with a tall, attractive avatar. These players might form more positive relationships with other players and gain support from this. As a result they reach a higher level. It is also possible that all of these factors may be contributing to the results observed.

So in the end, what can we say? If you want to do well in World of Warcraft you might be better off picking a tall, attractive avatar. Also, if you want to be short, it's probably better to be ugly, maybe go for a goblin instead of a gnome. It may seem rather superficial and unfair, but I guess World of Warcraft isn't so different from real life is it?


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