Close intimate playthings? Understanding player-avatar relationships as a function of attachment, agency, and intimacy


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Central to research on video games and virtual worlds is the player-avatar relationship (PAR): the interaction between a corporeal person and a digital body. Research perspectives on the nature of this relationship vary, suggesting it to be: a feature of social presence (de Kort, IJsselsteijn, & Poels, 2007), a function of emotional intimacy and perceived agency (Banks, in progress), identification with avatar personae (Yee, Bailenson, & Ducheneaut, 2009), and a merging of player and avatar psyches (Lewis, Weber, & Bowman, 2008). Yet, each recognizes that there are real physical humans and real digital avatars interacting in digital spaces. The following study uses in-depth player interviews to integrate Banks (in progress) and Lewis et al.’s (2008) perspectives to provide a more comprehensive understanding of PARs and suggests how a more integrative approach might aid our understanding of the gaming experience from an entertainment perspective.

Citation: Banks, J. D., & Bowman, N. D. (2013, October). Close intimate playthings? Understanding player-avatar relationships as a function of attachment, agency, and intimacy. Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of Association of Internet Researchers, Denver.

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  • Humans have relationships with various types of objects – with the tools we make for ourselves.We talk to them, take care of them, worry about them, ask things from them …
  • And sometimes, our technologies begin to talk back or communicate in other ways, as with Siri … We can argue that we form relationships with our technologies through these feedback loops.
  • And the potential for these relationships to deepen becomes even stronger when the technologies we interact withStart to look and sound and act a lot like us … as with avatars in virtual environments.
  • So what is an avatar? At its simplest, it’s an interactive, social representation of a user in a game, virtual world, social media platform, or other digital space.
  • Existing literature looks at PARs in digital games from a number of perspectives, but these are largely focused onHOW people use avatars. Such research tends to be about the functional role of avatars in virtual worlds, rather than their social role, their role and any sort of “relationship” between player and avatar that might go beyond functional. Even in research where we study players and relationships, we tend to focus on Player A having a relationship with Player B via their respective avatars. When we do use this word “relationship” we often mean an association between objects (something akin to peanut butter and jelly), but we really don’t talk about it as anything more than that.
  • A limited body of research examines the relational potential between player and avatar, but this work tends to focus on para-social relationships, or those relations between player and avatar that are one-sided, non-dialectical and controlled by the performer (in this case, usually the player).
  • One para-type relation we’re looking at is character attachment. We’ve chosen to look at this one because it begins to look at emotional considerations of care and responsibility – which suggest that we’re seeing the avatar as having some sort of personification, that it’s a “thing, but worthy of care” (akin to a really cute pet). It also requires the player to care about the avatar as part of a “real” world.
  • If we draw from the interpersonal and family psychology literature, we can get a clear take on what constitutes a fully social interpersonal relationship.A relationship is defined in this literature as …If we take this definition and replace ‘people’ with the less exclusive ‘agents’, Then we can start to look at the ways that these connections are – instead – social … that is …
  • They are two-sided, dialectical, and both the human and the technological elements materially contribute to the relationship. I did just this in a two-year phenomenological study of player-avatar relationship.Leaving open the possibility that PARs could be (but weren’t necessarily) fully social in the same way that human interpersonal relationships are, I found three primary dimensions that paint a clear picture of the degree to which these relationships are social. Specifically, PARs had varying qualitative values of emotional intimacy, perceived agency, and those qualities constellated around particular gameplay practices.
  • Specifically, two dimensions - emotional intimacy ran from low to high, perceived agency ran from high player agency to high avatar agency, with mixed agencies in the middle – tended to line up. Further, patterns in these characteristics tended to line up with particular gameplay emphases. * Avatar as an object (a tool for competition with little emotion felt, little agency), * Avatar-as-Me (lower intimacy, high player agency, and a focus on presenting a high-fidelity representation of the user in the gameworld), * Avatar-as-symbiote (with moderate intimacy, shared agency, and a focus on identity negotiations between player and avatar), * and avatar-as-other (high intimacy, high av agency, and protecting the avatar as a real, separate personality in the world).Remember that long list of avatar characterizations I showed you at the beginning of this presentation – a number of them are included here, and this typology brings them together and explains the differences among them. It ALSO presents a framework for integrating cognitive, affective, and gameplay dimensions of PARs.
  • Basically, we wanted to see how, for a given population of gamers, how dimensions of a parasocial relationship would compare to dimensions of a fully social relationship.
  • Re-analyzed existing data from the study from which the PARs emerged … We conducted thematic analysis to examine how dimensions of CA mapped to the relationship types.
  • Overview of patterns
  • Recalling that as we move from left to right (from object to social other), the PAR is more akin to human interpersonal relationship. Two on their face makes sense in their alignment with CA – SoD is required for seeing the avatar as more than a collection of pixelsCare/Responsibility will emerge when you see the avatar as a distinct otherWe also have the sense of control in an inverse relationship with PAR, and a sort of curve with identification, with those seeing the avatar as themselves having, naturally, the highest sense of identification.
  • We can explain these findings through the notion of self-differentiation rooted in the work of ___ Bowen (19xx).Self-differentiation is the degree to which a person sees another person (or here, the other agent) as distinct from oneself.Bowen argues that self-differentiation is a requirement for authentic emotional intimacy.
  • So on one side of the PAR spectrum, there is low self-differentiation – as an object, it’s a plaything, a tool and as ‘me’ it is an extension of intention and identity. So, within those blocks, the results still look a lot like what we see in studies from a CA perspective.However, when we move to Symbiote/Other relationships that, do different degrees, engage in self-differentiation, they start to look quite different from CA.
  • So why does this notion of self-differentiation matter? It matters because each one of these internet use scenarios moves from a user-used connection to a “we.”So that when we go into digital spaces, we don’t always go in alone. So we need to move beyond a position where the default is ‘user uses a tech for a particular purpose’ to one where human and technology are equal partners in a potentially full social relationship.
  • We assume that greatest learning comes from us being in the environment (we are in the environment so we are learning from the environment)And so we assume that highest character attachment will lead to greatest learningBut, this shows that self-differentiation (not being me) may lead to the highest learningEmpathy that comes with perspective-taking, responsibility and care, without any of the ego motivation – you have to make decisions about something (someONE) you care about – that should be more impactful. we always assume that the highest levels of CA would lead to the highest levels of meaningfulness/meaning. BUT, if all for CA dimensions are high then we only see moderate self-differentiation - which wraps up our ego into the experience we're supposed to learn from. BUT Bowman et al 2013 found that really only the dimensions of responsibility were the important dimensions of meaningfulness (in fact control decreased appreciation).
  • Close intimate playthings? Understanding player-avatar relationships as a function of attachment, agency, and intimacy

    1. 1. Close intimate playthings? Understanding player-avatar relationships as a function of attachment, agency, and intimacy Jaime Banks @amperjay Nicholas D. Bowman @bowmanspartan
    2. 2. Avatar: “An interactive, social representation of a user.” Meadows, 2008
    3. 3. Avatars are … Possibilities (Markus & Nurius, 1986; Nakamura, 2002) Bricolage (Turkle, 1997) Rhetorical acts (Kolko, 1999) Vehicles (Carr, 2002) Bundles of resources (Castronova, 2005) Tools, roles, and props (Linderoth, 2005) Surrogates (Gee, 2006) Masks (Galanxhi & Nah, 2007, in Schultz & Leahy) Totems (Apter, 2008) Symbolic objects (Giddings & Kennedy, 2008) Costumes (Merola & Pena, 2010)
    4. 4. Player-avatar (para)relationships “one-sided, non-dialectical, and controlled by the performer” ~Horton & Wohl, 1956 • Attachment • Identification • Proteus Effect (reverse)
    5. 5. Character Attachment • “Psychological Merging” • Dimensions o Identification/friendship o Suspension of disbelief o Sense of control o Sense of care/responsibility Past work demonstrates: Highest in RPGs (Weber et al., 2008) Associated with pro- and anti-social gaming (Bowman et al., 2012) Drives enjoyment and appreciation experiences (Bowman et al., 2013)
    6. 6. Player Avatar Relationships Relationship = valenced connection between two people where each party influences the other AGENTS Burscheid & Peplau, 1983 Harvey & Pauwels, 2009
    7. 7. Player-Avatar Relationships • Two-sided, dialectical, mutual agency • Dimensions o Emotional intimacy o Perceived agency o Gameplay practices
    8. 8. PAR Types Object Me Symbiote Other
    9. 9. Research Question How do dimensions of CA (parasocial) map to PAR types (social)?
    10. 10. Method • Transcripts from in-depth interviews o Voice interview + play interview o 25 World of Warcraft players o ~70 hours audio  1,500 pp transcripts • Thematic narrative analysis o CA dimensions o Known PAR types (previous analysis)
    11. 11. Results Avatar as Object Avatar as Me Avatar as Symbiote Avatar as Social Other Identification Low High Mid Low Suspension of disbelief Low Mid Mid High Sense of Control High Mid Mid Low Sense of care/ responsibility Low Mid Mid High
    12. 12. CA: Identification Low Medium High “I know who I am and so an avatar on a screen is not going to be me.” “She’s just kind of that part of me that I don’t allow to come out in… real life.” “He's just kind of more my style than others … Dwarves are kind of rough and tumble, and I'm a little that way.”
    13. 13. CA: Suspension of Disbelief Low “I’m a woman in real life. … Well, I’m not a guy in real life. But then I’m not a Paladin in real life, either, so. I don’t really see whether that should matter.” Medium “I’d just go into the park and find a tree and just kind of chill. Same thing I do in Org. I’m around people … but in my own world enjoying it.” High “I always kind of envisioned his retirement, sort of golden years, as patrolling in the Barrens. He was tasked by the Warchief to lend aid to the young’uns.”
    14. 14. CA: Sense of Control Low Medium High “I know his voice, I know his stance and I will frequently make choices in-game based on how I know he would act.” “I think as long as the game is a place that people can interface with each other with pixels … I think that I'll continue to play it.” “I feel like I have a lot more control over the success of a group [as a healer] than I did as just a damage dealer and it’s much more engaging.”
    15. 15. CA: Sense of Care/Responsibility Low “[When I’m raiding] I feel kind of a responsibility. You have 24 other people counting on you or 9 other people counting on you.” Medium “Someone had hacked my account … I felt really violated … like somebody had taken something from me.” High “His entire family died. He barely escaped and had to learn how to take care of himself.”
    16. 16. Results Avatar as Object Avatar as Me Avatar as Symbiote Avatar as Social Other Identification Low High Mid Low Suspension of disbelief Low Mid Mid High Sense of Control High Mid Mid Low Sense of care/ responsibility Low Mid Mid High
    17. 17. Self-differentiation Low High
    18. 18. Results Avatar as Object Avatar as Me Avatar as Symbiote Avatar as Social Other Identification Low High Mid Low Suspension of disbelief Low Mid Mid High Sense of Control High Mid Mid Low Sense of care/ responsibility Low Mid Mid High
    19. 19. Human-Tech Relationships From user-used to “we” …………. Social self-differentiation
    20. 20. Entertainment gratifications • Entertainment is (Oliver & Raney, 2010) o Enjoyment: Pleasure of Control o Meaningfulness: Pleasure of Cognition • Self-differentiation seems key to stimulating “authentic” meaningfulness Authentic emotional intimacy requires self-differentiation (Bowen,1978)
    21. 21. Future Research • Language patterns (signatures) • PARs through levels of „realism‟ • Moderating effects? o Impact of educational games o Influences on identity performance o Experiences of violent content o Power of mood management
    22. 22. Jaime Banks @amperjay Nick Bowman @bowmanspartan