CSU research unmasks online game personas and behavior

CSU research on personas of online gamers is helping to uncover how we categorize people in the modern age.

Headed by CSU Journalism Associate Professor Dr. Rosa Mikeal Martey, the study was conducted alongside Syracuse University, Concordia University and the University at Albany. Researchers created custom games built within massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) Second Life and World of Warcraft, which require players to make character avatars. The study had a total of 576 participants aged 18 to 64.

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They analyzed character movements, online chats and avatar appearance during the two-hour gaming period.

Markey and other researchers were trying to map patterns of virtual characteristics to match offline behaviors.

“Are they completely masked, or are there tells and queues about their offline identity?” Markey said.

According to an article from the study, 79 percent of players on MMOGs use an avatar of the opposite gender. Thirty percent do so on a regular basis. This is often an aesthetic or pragmatic choice.

Kevin Fleischman, avid World of Warcraft-er, said he opts for characters and roles of the opposite gender, especially when considering skills and abilities of the female avatars.

“… Looking at the opposite sex and gear was appealing. My main character was a male, but classes that seemed more feminine, such as a healer, I played as a female,” Fleischman said.

According to Martey, when male gamers switch genders online, they retain their male persona.

“All the guys who gender-switched were not playing as women,” Martey said. “They made sure everyone knew they were male.”

Diana Sanchez, psychology professor at CSU, said that the gamers tend to change their identity online to visualize their “ideal” self.

“Customizing characters facilitates people playing out fantasies and can improve the immersive experience that virtual environments aim to provide,” Sanchez said.

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Within the vast virtual spaces of these games, one can choose up to hundreds of different “ideal selves.”

“The younger players were more willing to experiment with their appearance,” Martey said. “The older players used more stereotypically attractive avatars. We thought the younger players would be more concerned with how they looked, but the opposite was true.”

According to the study, the younger players were more likely to use punctuation and correct misspellings when chatting online.

“Especially in WoW, younger players have such a bad reputation,” Martey said. “They wanted to demonstrate that they were not trying to be annoying and make trouble.”

Martey noted the opportunity for leadership and organizational involvement for younger people in WoW.

“I absolutely look down on players that don’t use proper spelling or grammar,” said Devon Barnidge, former WoW player. “I don’t know that I consider these players younger, but I certainly consider them juvenile.”

As a result of the study, Martey and researchers concluded that connections can be made from virtual reality to actual reality.

“In digital spaces, we have opportunities to bridge barriers … dividing people into categories is beginning to be based more on ideas and beliefs than age and gender,” Martey said.

Collegian Staff Reporter Haleigh McGill can be reached at news@collegian.com.