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Our Virtual Bodies, Ourselves?

Overall the findings show two interesting things. First of all, while players prefer more idealized (i.e., taller and more attractive) characters, much of avatar choice seems to revolve around mirroring; taller people prefer taller avatars, older people prefer older avatars, male players prefer more masculine characters, and female players prefer more feminine characters.

And second, as we've seen before, different personalities and motivations are drawn to different character types. In a game like World of Warcraft, the findings related to player motivations and body type may play out in unexpected ways in places such as battlegrounds where players from the different factions engage in PvP. Players on the Horde side may have an edge because the Horde side consists of more achievement-oriented players.


Posted on February 17, 2008 | Comments (28) | TrackBack (0)


Interesting findings. I was thinking of William Swann's theory of self-verification and how players wanted others to see them as their ideal self-image. So tall people want others to believe them to be tall, etc. and this is despite the opportunity to drastically change themselves.

Perhaps there's a comfort range (probably related to self-esteem or identity stability, just the top of my mind) that players are willing to change their avatars from their real life self-image. Maybe an avatar experiment might show how far one is willing to change.

As for personality and motivations related to body type, at first I wasn't surprised at all. Cute, lithe and human characters are attractive which make them appear more sociable, more likely to be approached and less threatening than the large and dark characters. I guess such differences is attributed to character stereotype (not the negative kind, I'm thinking of the evolutionary kind)

Posted by: janarius on February 21, 2008 6:14 AM

This is all quite fascinating - I play WoW, and I never realized this before, but when playing my goofy-looking gnome I am actually much more likely to stand around talking and socializing than I am when playing my human character.

Posted by: cwoozy on February 21, 2008 1:25 PM

Interesting report - However, one possible criticism is that MMO's may not give the user that much choice. As an example, I play a night elf druid in World of Warcraft. I chose male, as I am male in real life - but that ended most of the choices I had in this survey. In order to play the class I wanted, I was required to play a night elf. I could have chosen Tauren if I wanted to be a member of the Horde, I suppose, but my friend who got me to buy the game was playing a human. So, my height/body type were more or less chosen by blizzard. That I happen to be tall and thin as a person is mostly a coincidence.

Posted by: Tasonir on February 21, 2008 1:48 PM

Tasonir states a very good point. Often the game decisions are made by the DM, or GM, or CEO if you will. Only certain races allowed certain classes, and these classes are exclusive and not allowed to mix (dual). Neverwinter Nights, however, allows this, which I enjoy greatly to see the various combinations of multiple class avatars, with multiple races, genders, the permutations on it must be astronomical but its been too long since that math class....

Posted by: Fulgorater on February 21, 2008 8:36 PM

It would have been interesting to see how player's desire to group or solo correlated to their avatar choice.

I am female and like lots of customization, do not value achievement all that much, and I like playing animalistic/ugly characters, the converse of the females in the survey. My hunch the difference is our value of socializing/grouping.

I don't enjoy socializing with random strangers, especially in game. I like escaping the status quo. I also like helping outcasts and finding interesting, unusual friends. By talking with/helping the few weird looking avatars in game, I feel more like I'm truly helping/more like I'll discover someone I'd like to know than by talking with/helping some of the thousands of Barbie/Superhero avatars. I appreciate World of Warcraft having animalistic/ugly options, it is the only MMO I am aware of which does (I wish more games would follow suit, but like with many things, I might be in a tiny minority).

Posted by: April on February 21, 2008 8:49 PM

Presumably the gender shown in that data was the actual gender of the player, not the gender of the avatar?

I ask because it would perhaps be interesting to see the tendencies of players who chose the opposite gender to there own. Does a female player who chooses a male avatar still tend to choose "lithe" avatars, or will she default to "dark" or "large" characters. Likewise does a male player who chooses to play as a female avatar still roll a troll or decide to become a elf?

Posted by: Jinx on February 22, 2008 11:35 AM

Somehow the data seems to be contradicting the general opinion about WoW's Horde being populated by more mature players than the Alliance.

All in all, I find myself in a pretty strange and mixed feelings after reading this. I cannot stand playing generic human/elf/dwarf type characters, and usually I'm on the dark side of the 'force'. This should suggest that I'm pre-teen adolescent full of anger and negligibly social. However, the social aspect is very much on top of my agenda, and the achievements... I rate them differently than the game, so they don't matter as much. Oh yes, and I'm almost 40, so that takes off that maturity aspect. No need to achieve ingame, 'cause I'm achieving enough in real life.

Ok, there is always the exception to the rule, so I might as well be that one, but this makes me wonder the depth of the data and the overall response rate. How statistically relevant is the data?


Posted by: Copra on February 24, 2008 11:50 PM

Copra - The Large/Dark finding has been fairly consistent over the past few years across different data sets (1, 2, 3).

The general pattern is that:

1) Where there is a good/evil (or pseudo good/evil, light/dark split), younger players prefer the evil/dark side.

2) Younger players are more competitive and achievement-oriented than older players in games.

3) Players who pick Horde are more competitive and achievement-oriented than players who pick Alliance.

4) The average age of Horde players is slightly lower than the average age of Alliance players.

Part of the maturity issue may be that Horde players appear more organized because of the underlying achievement-orientation, whereas Alliance may attract more first-time MMO players. But it should also be noted that differences found in the hypothetical choices are larger than those found when dealing with Horde/Alliance specifically.

Posted by: Nick Yee on February 25, 2008 1:05 AM

So aged characters positively correlate to older players to some level of significance; and aged characters also underscore on achievement, immersion and sociability?

does this mean that older players also underscore on achievement, immersion and sociability, or only those playing aged characters?

and what are the motivations to play for these older players with aged characters, if it's not achievement, immersion or socialisation?

Posted by: sean on February 25, 2008 7:39 AM

Very interesting indeed. But how do you apply this on players who play for a long time and roll new characters to try new classes and playstyles? I am a woman, 33 years old, and (as the result implicates) I usually choose cute or graceful avatars. But I and many of my in-game friends enjoy trying new classes, and raising new utility characters our guild might need. I also consider myself being an achievement-oriented player.
This is after two years playing WoW.
For my first character and the playstyle I had back then, your study is almost embarrasingly correct.

Posted by: Jonna on February 25, 2008 9:51 AM

Sean - The "Aged" characters are right around average on the motivations. Past data has shown that older people score lower on Achievement, but no difference on Social and Immersion compared with younger players.

Jonna - I think seeing how these effects may change as players become more experienced would definitely be a good future area to explore.

Posted by: Nick Yee on February 25, 2008 10:20 AM

In all the interviews I've conducted with gamers while filming over the past three years it's been fascinating to observe the commonalities I've found among many females who choose female dark elves from Lineage2 as their primaries. The physical and personality similarities of these women are striking, none of whom know each other irl.

Posted by: Shavaun on February 26, 2008 11:09 PM

Thank you for your prompt answer, Nick. The data is suggestive, but knowing how statistics can be intepreted and how the collection can be scewered, I would most definately like to see the 'matured out' players and player experience on MMO's followed up on this, too.

Thank you.


Posted by: Copra on February 28, 2008 5:34 AM

mmmm, scewered data! Sounds yummy!

Posted by: Jason on February 28, 2008 9:49 AM

One thing worth taking into account (though I'm guessing you may have) is that some players choose classes within their faction for stats/abilities rather than appearance. This is at least true for WoW, though I'm less familiar with other MMOs.

Tasonir touches on this, with his druid, but there are several WoW races for each faction who can play hunters or warriors or whatnot, and each has its own advantages.

That's how I tend to choose, and I'm probably not the only pragmatist.

Posted by: MT on February 29, 2008 7:19 AM

I agree with MT, a future study could be done on this. Specifically, when you choose your avatar, what factors were most important. Brainstorming a few options:

Avatar appearance (age, light/dark, attractive/unattractive)
Avatar gender (m/f avatars vs m/f players)
Race appearance (Ie, you might have gone for a pretty looking undead, but the average undead player is less so. How much did the appearance of the people you'd be around matter to you?)
Class choices
Specific racial skills/stats
Racial alliances (in terms of wow, is your race a member of horde or alliance)
Lore/background (ie, druids are a nature-based class)

It would also be interesting to compare a player's first major character with the next character they created that they spent a fair amount of time playing on. Did they go for something different, or something similiar?

My choice of a druid in wow was based on fairly limited knowledge of what a druid in wow was like, but I had played a druid previously in other games (muds) so I liked the nature theme of the class.

Posted by: Tasonir on March 5, 2008 2:29 PM

I would also be interested in the LGBTQ subset of players. My suspicion would be that straight men who play female avatars have different motivations than players who are gay. It's a muddy area, and probably quite tricky to get good numbers, though.

For me, I'm a tall, gay male, and tend towards the lithe characters (perhaps not surprisingly). Elves & Fae in EQ2. But I find I also tend towards the shorter races (Dwarf, Ratonga, Fae, Half-Elf).

Posted by: Tarth on March 11, 2008 10:25 AM

Read with interest. Comments read with even greater interest. It goes to prove Einstein's point: " There's lies, damn lies, and statistics."

Reading the comments here has left me wondering if all the appropriate parameters were taken into account to make this bit of research useful!

Posted by: Dragonwyst on March 17, 2008 1:00 AM

Very interesting indeed. I first rolled an orc shaman in world of warcraft, apart from some online research. But I rerolled it several times because of the name I didn't like. Then I tried a tauren hunter. Then I rerolled it (same name) as an orc hunter. I assume I was searching for my self-interupted image of myself. If more research is done that finds what order people tend to try new things, that'll be interesting. Hehe.

Posted by: Ryno on March 17, 2008 8:08 AM

I was curious to see Draenai in the hulking category only. There are marked differences is the male Draenai (which I agree meet the "hulking" category descriptions) and the female Draenai, which are tall and lithe. Since I am not familiar with the other games' races, I cannot say if there were similar sex differentials which may revise the categories.
Perhaps this is something to consider?

Posted by: Amber on March 17, 2008 9:40 AM

I'm sorry but I found some significant flaws in your analysis, so significant that I believe they render some of your conclusions useless.

For WoW, you did not differ between PVP and PVE realms (and RP-PVP and RP-PVE realms for that matter)

Further analysis will show you that selecting a PVP or PVE realm is the single biggest predictive variable on whether characters end up "dark" or "graceful"

For: On PVP realms, horde outnumbers alliance on a H:A=3:2 ratio, where on PVE realms, alliance outnumbers horde in excess of a 2:1=A:H ratio.

Horde characters tend to be darker and uglier. On PVP-Server players tend to prefer horde. I postulate that PVP players are younger, on average, and hence causey our false impression that younger players would prefer darker and bulkier characters. And I postulate that conversely, players who opt to play on a PVE realm are less experienced with gaming, less competitive, and older, and more likely to select a graceful character.

Basis: the HUGE difference in population structure on PVE and PVP realms shows that the type of realm has a vast effect on the player base, and this difference may well extend over mere selection of races.

PVP players are more much more likely to select horde than PVE players. And no, it's not because of racial bonuses, a beginner is not capable of asessing racials, I claim it's the mindset that alliance is the "default" faction, and horde has no other purpose than to fight it.

I claim: More competitive players are more likely to play horde on a PVP realm. This competitiveness is almost invariably going to stem from previous (MMORP-) gaming experience, where in some games, the inability to kick someone's ass merely due to the sheer virtue that he is a player character, can be very frustrating.

A player without much to any previous gaming experience and obvlivious to the finer differences between a PVP and PVE realm may more likely opt to choose a PVE realm out of fear of harassment (Less competitive behaviour). Consequently, he may more likely select the alliance faction due to their more generic and more appealing fantasy stereotypes (elf, human, dwarf)

Hence, all unexperienced n00bs end up at PVE servers on alliance, while the folks with previous gaming experience are more likely to end up at PVP realms on the horde side. Experience with gaming and MMORPG scales inversely with age - the older someone is (above say 10 years of age), the more unlikely he is intimately familiar with MMORPG or gaming concepts. Hence, older players are more likely to select PVE, alliance, and hence, more likely a lithe character.

Younger, more experienced players on the other hand, may be more likely to end up on PVP servers, and hence, more likely on horde side, therefore, they will more likely select dark and menacing characters.

Hence your correlation between player age and lithe/darkness of race selection may well be completely off.

Furthermore, some (especially experienced) players may be more intrigued by classes than any other considerations (such as race or faction), and chose their faction/race more in respect to the class they want to play (e.g. undead warlocks vs orc warlocks, human paladins vs gnome warriors)

I believe that you need to correct (at least for WoW) for factors such as

- Realm type selection
- Faction selection
- Class selection

To make any valid statements about correlations.

Posted by: Dab on March 31, 2008 4:34 AM

Dab - Your argument actually follows naturally from the data presented. It all stems from a player's competitiveness. Competitive players are more likely to select PvP servers.

1) Players who are more achievement-oriented and competitive prefer the larger, more intimidating races (stated in article).

2) PvP servers attract disproportionately more competitive players (which past data has shown).

3) Thus, on PvP servers, we would expect players are disproportionately more likely to select the larger, intimidating characters (such as Horde). And this is what we know to be true from census data.

So I don't see how this is different from what you're arguing.

It's also true though that younger players are more competitive. Thus, we would also expect youngers players to prefer the darker/larger characters. And we've seen in other data that younger players prefer the Dark/Evil side even when the question isn't tied to race at all. So age and competitiveness both factor into Horde selection in a game like WoW. And both these factors were stated in the article.

Just because one factor is a cause doesn't mean it suddenly excludes all other factors as causal possibilities. To say it's all about competitiveness and not age is not a tenable position because younger players are more competitive. And this isn't confounded by server selection in WoW because it's how the data has looked since even before WoW came out.

Posted by: Nick Yee on March 31, 2008 3:09 PM

Actually the statistics quote, " Lies, damned lies, etc," is attributed to Mark Twain in "Chapters from My Autobiography" or to an earlier similar quote of Benjamin Disraeli's.

Posted by: Morgannan on April 11, 2008 1:04 PM

My very first toon was a gnome rogue. From memory, it was male. I'm 6ft1, male and in that early thirties age bracket (at least, I was two years ago when I started playing). That toon only made it til lvl13, before discovering the group of friends I was to play with were on another realm.

The next choice was a nelf hunter (on the right realm). After some disparaging remarks about hunters (from within the guild), and the friend that I actually wanted to level with joining a week later, that toon only made it to lvl13 as well, before I started a nelf warrior to level with my friends druid.

Whilst believing myself stuck with the nelf (in hindsight, I would should have gone human for the rep grind, or dwarf for stone skin), I did put some thought into hair and facial expression... long blue hair and a snarly/angry face, after all, he's a warrior, and getting hit makes him angry. This character became my main until the release of TBC. To this day, I choose to hide helmet, rather than have a bucket with ears on my shoulders.

My current main is a Draenei pally. Again, a bulky toon, but it was mostly about leveling a new toon with TBC, starting Jewelcrafting and having a healer in the guild (eventually changing from Ret to Holy at lvl70).

Since then, I've also leveled a gnome lock (male) and human priest (male) to 70, and plan to level the other 5 slots to 70 as well, for utility, except a bank alt, who may get deleted in favour of a death knight, depending on if we are given an extra toon slot per realm when WotLK is released.

I currently have a human male mage (at lvl43), and gnome female rogue (at lvl26, but have only just started) receiving attentions for leveling. Toon choices are mainly about utility and variety. Utillity in profession: human male mage will be my second alchemist with aims for Elixir Mastery and my third tailor with aims for spell cloth, and as human, the rep grind wont be annoying. I also put through into the avatar appearance... a dark skinned frost mage named Chivers seems somewhat ironic, comical and fitting (I'll let the reader decide if the skin hue comes from birth or frostbite). The gnome female rogue will be for engineering, and just because the stealthed walk is cute, and sounds far less annoying than the male gnome (I wanted to slap my male gnome lock everytime he got down to a plaintive "Please Heal Me!", though not enough for me to disable that mod option). And the Variety in race, class and profession as well.

Anyway, thats my story ( I like to share ), and I might go refill one of those surveys, now that its probably been a year since I did the last one.

Posted by: Reuben on May 8, 2008 5:07 PM

Oh, the point! I missed the point that I wanted to make in the post (and addressing comments made by Dab).

This particular article was about avatar choice, and how that maps to the people making those choices, and from that, what assumptions you may make about the player behind a toon before you actually talk to them.

For myself, guesses about whats on the other side of that toon are reserved until I actually group with them (or spend too long reading General and Trade channels). Even then, comments on the General and Trade channels have to be taken with a grain of salt, and my own rare comments on those channels are likely to be a humorous observation, rather than any serious(sic) discussion regarding RL or in-game issues.

As for the PvP vs PvE factor deciding avatar choice, I'm sure there's another bunch of stats that could be drawn upon to reveal a generality.

For myself, I enjoy storyline, which is why I went for a PvE server. I enjoy storyline and uninterrupted play more that I enjoy doing the corpse run. If I were to level a toon on a PvP server (which is not quite the point of being on a PvP server, other than the challenge), it would definitely be Horde. I wouldnt want to be repeatedly ganked trying to run from Astranaar to Forest Song. Nope, no thanks, not for me. I much rather join Arena or a BG for the competition aspect, than get stomped on for no apparent reason or honor.

Of course, thats just my skewed view that PvP folks have pathological tendencies.

The competition aspects of MMOPRGs is probably something for another thread. My opinion (offered for free, and costs nothing to ignore) is that things like Arenas have next to nothing to do with RPG, and at only 10 players per match removes one of those Ms, to the point where you'd probably be better of with CS, if it wasnt for the cash prizes available in Arena Tournament.

Posted by: Reuben on May 8, 2008 5:30 PM

I would have liked to see a more detailed analysis of people's actual body types and how that might suggest what sort of choices they are likely to make in terms of an avatar. For example, I'm a tall and lean, muscular, very athletic 33 year old and I prefer to play a short, pudgy and bald gnome in World of Warcraft. Plus, it would be interesting to note how personality traits maps onto character trait selection (whether one chooses a Rogue, Hunter, etc.). Personality might trump actual physical appearance and gender/age with regard to these avatar choices in many cases. For example, many men (and I mean a lot of men) like to play lithe but breastly robust females in WOW - what does that mean? They get their porn in, too, is that it - two birds, one stone?

Posted by: Jason on May 14, 2008 12:18 PM

a thought but, if one were to use a specific game to check people against their avatars, City of heroes/villains would be the one to do it with. size, physical ratios, colours, gear... all customizable by the player, and in No way associated with archetype or origin [if unfamiliar with the game, read class and race]

that said, I'm a straight male of slightly above average height and 21 years of age.

most of my avatars in that game are female, and look more agile than anything. [also depend somewhat less on the one super power all female superheroes seem to share in the comic books than is average :D] as well as being slightly below average in height. i also play about equal heroes/villains [light and dark equivalent, respectively] .. make of that what you will.

Posted by: Chargone on July 3, 2008 6:33 AM

It is also possible that players may choose the smallest possible characters (such as gnomes in WoW) because smaller characters can be harder to see and target by enemy players.

Posted by: Evernoob on February 4, 2009 8:38 PM
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