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Cascade Arcade: We often play games to be our ideal selves

In a new Psychological Science issue, an article discusses a recent study that hypothesizes that we’re drawn to games that allow us to role-play as those with our “ideal self characteristics.” The study, run by Andrew Przbylski, asked gamers about their personalities types, not just as themselves but also as their ideal-selves and as the characters they play as in games. The results backed up the claim, and Przbylski noted how the phenomenon is most common in those with a great difference between their personalities and the personality of what they perceive to be ideal.

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By Joel Smart (The Cascade) – Email

Print Edition: February 8, 2012

In a new Psychological Science issue, an article discusses a recent study that hypothesizes that we’re drawn to games that allow us to role-play as those with our “ideal self characteristics.” The study, run by Andrew Przbylski, asked gamers about their personalities types, not just as themselves but also as their ideal-selves and as the characters they play as in games. The results backed up the claim, and Przbylski noted how the phenomenon is most common in those with a great difference between their personalities and the personality of what they perceive to be ideal.

Jamie Madigan, who operates The Psychology of Video Games and has a Ph.D. in psychology, wrote a fascinating article for Gamesutra about the study and its possible implications for game designers. His primary focus is on the way players choose to develop their characters in role playing games – either with experience points or in games that allow players to make morality choices. For Madigan, it only becomes interesting when it moves past the over-simplified dichotomies of pure-evil and overly-heroic. Things can get more complicated than deciding whether you want to save the busload of orphans or hurl them off the edge of a cliff.

“Taking Przbylski’s research to heart, effective choices in these games are going to be the ones that let players adopt a much wider spectrum of personality, desires, values and judgments,” Madigan explained. It’s a valuable suggestion for an industry that tends default to the more base levels – at least compared to film and literature. Yet progress is being made, and Madigan alludes to this in a discussion of Dues Ex: Human Revolution and Dragon Age 2, two recent games that allow players to develop their characters in terms of more abstract, ideological and moral positions.

Though it’s not an entirely novel concept, the motives and psychology behind the choices players make when roleplaying is certainly a valuable area to research – especially with the growing popularity of games like Second Life, or even just the different ways people misrepresent themselves online (often unintentionally). The inclination is always to put your most attractive picture as your profile picture on Facebook, and to perhaps avoid letting people see your frustrated emotional outbursts on a bad day. However, within the context of a more traditional game, the option to explore moral choices really provides an opportunity to “try out” characteristics that differ from their own; while the inclination may be to be that ideal self, I suspect that when the consequences are taken away, many will at least temporarily find equal value in the ability to explore different morals and values.

There is always room for improvement, of course; few games truly allow a player to complete a game in a variety of different ways. Is it possible for a game to accept and adapt to a player that is free to truly explore any number of varying personalities? Some games do allow a player to conceivably beat an action game as a pacifist, but it’s rarely a viable strategy. Ideally, the choices you make or fail to make would have an ever-expanding impact on the overall direction of the game. Unfortunately the amount of programming and resources necessary to accomplish such an ambitious plan are the current limiting factors, but games like Heavy Rain seem to be taking baby steps in that direction. If nothing else, Przbylski’s study and Madigan’s response offer an intriguing opportunity to reflect on the reasons you play the way you do.

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