What Your Avatar Says About You

Want a friendly online persona? Throw on a sweater.

The author's avatar  (WeeWorld.com)

Whether I’m bashing orcs with a battle-axe or rallying with a friend in Nintendo Wii tennis, my digital doppelgänger is always a black guy with cool glasses, a big smile, and a curly fro. That’s how I look in real life, and that’s how I design my virtual avatars to appear. Those features key other players into how I look, and according to new research, potentially provide insight into my personality.

In the digital realm, customizable characters can reflect or suppress real-world identities, and research has shown that we create online aliases based on how we perceive ourselves away from the computer. And the color hair we choose or the accessories we wear influences what other players think of us, according to Katrina Fong, a social psychologist from York University in Toronto. “After reading some very interesting past research on how we can form accurate impressions of others based on very little information,” she said, “I decided to pursue the current line of research: How do we express our identities in virtual self-representations, and how are we perceived?”

Fong and her colleague recruited about 100 students and asked them to fill out a personality survey which gauged five personality traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. After completing the survey, she brought the participants into a computer lab and asked them to create their own avatars using WeeWord.com, an online tool that creates simple, two-dimensional characters. The students could customize the gender, skin tone, hair type, clothing, and accessories of their avatars.

After the users created their Wee World doubles, a second group of participants unrelated to the first group reviewed them. The nearly 200 participants in the second group filled out a questionnaire evaluating the avatars’ characteristics. The participants were also asked how strongly they would or would not want to become friends with the creator of that character.

The analysis showed that people can detect how anxious, outgoing, or agreeable a person is by their avatar, but not how conscientious or open to new experiences they are, the pair reported this month in the journal Personal and Social Psychology Bulletin. Avatars with smiles, oval faces, brown hair, and open eyes were more likely to seem friendly, while those with black hair, short hair, a hat, sunglasses and any expression other than a smile were seen as less friendly. Interestingly, sweaters were the only clothing choice that made a character seem more welcoming, which Fong speculates may be because sweaters express warmth. Items that concealed the face like hats and glasses, the research suggests, may come across as cold.

Fong cautions that her findings only apply to simple, two-dimensional digital characters and don’t reveal much about their more dynamic counterparts used to slay monsters in games like World of Warcraft. So there’s no need to wear a sweater next time your guild goes recruiting.