University of Texas: Unattractive Avatars Promote Negative Self Images

University of Texas Austin campus at sunset-dusk - aerial view
University of Texas Austin campus at sunset-dusk – aerial view

As virtual world programs continue to expand into universities around the country, we’re getting the first taste of serious virtual world research.

A new University of Texas study reports that the appearance of an avatar might have a negative effect on the self-image of the player.

Pixels and Policy looks at recent work from the University of Texas, one of the largest virtual world education projects in the country, that may spread doubt about the utility of widespread use of virtual worlds in education.

Psychology of the Avatar

According to the University of Texas study, an ugly avatar might result not only in social isolation in-world, but the unattractive appearance of a player’s avatar could bleed over into the player’s perception of themselves. Researchers found the following interesting bit of real-to-virtual crossover:

The subtext of an avatar’s appearance can
simultaneously prime negative (or anti-social) thoughts and inhibit
positive (or pro-social) thoughts inconsistent with the avatar’s
appearance. From the thought-provoking results of the university research:

In two separate experiments, research participants were randomly
assigned a dark- or white-cloaked avatar, or to avatars wearing
physician or Ku Klux Klan-like uniforms or a transparent avatar. The
participants were assigned tasks including writing a story about a
picture, or playing a video game on a virtual team and then coming to
consensus on how to deal with infractions.

Consistently, participants represented by an avatar in a dark cloak
or a KKK-like uniform demonstrated negative or anti-social behavior in
team situations and in individual writing assignments.

This provides more evidence to support Pixels and Policy’s research into the role of gender in Second Life. If avatars can affect the self-image of players either positively or negatively, it makes sense that women who create sexualized avatars often feel the avatar is “better” than the player behind it. Numerous women in our survey cited this as a reason for bulging breasts and impossibly thin waists.

Now the University of Texas has pioneering research showing that our connection to avatars doesn’t destroy our sense of self – it augments and reforms it, often in unexpected ways. But what does this mean to a country that is increasingly looking for ways to bring virtual worlds into public schools?

Ultimately, there may be little that can be done to deal with a problem ingrained in human beings. Limiting avatar design choices cuts off much of the appeal of the “be anything” virtual world, and encouraging only avatars with positive appearances unfairly limits those who enjoy donning the rogue’s hood and heading off for some pillaging.

If anything, structures should be put in place to channel the internalization of one’s avatar to ends that minimize the risk of real-world injury. As one University of Texas researcher says:


“By manipulating the appearance of the avatar, you can augment the
probability of people thinking and behaving in predictable ways without
raising suspicion,” said Peña. “Thus, you can automatically make a
virtual encounter more competitive or cooperative by simply changing
the connotations of one’s avatar.”

A female gamer shouldn’t feel her avatar is a “better” version of her real self if that feeling creates an environment of low real-world self-esteem. But how best to transition the increasing feelings players have for their avatars into a psychologically healthy area? Do gamers need a reminder that the world is only fictional? Doubtful.

As questions of psychology and motivation arise through experiments conducted in a virtual setting, virtually literate institutions of higher education will be uniquely equipped to respond. The questions may not have easy answers, but they provide us a valuable window into ourselves. That alone is worth the effort.

2 thoughts on “University of Texas: Unattractive Avatars Promote Negative Self Images”

  1. Da Menschen immer weniger im WWW anonym bleiben, ausgenommen die kriminellen Spammer, ist das eine interessante Studie zum zukünftigen 3D-Internet und Social 3D-Networks. Gratulation, das sich einmal jemand diesem Zukunftsthema annimmt. 🙂

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