Our Virtual Bodies, Ourselves?

What do our virtual bodies say about us? More importantly, are certain people more likely to choose a particular kind of body type in the virtual world? In this article, we'll take a look at character height, attractiveness, and body types.

Let's start with character height. It's probably not surprising that when people can choose their height that they choose to be a little taller than average. This was marginally more so for men than for women. In the survey, I also asked players to self-report their actual height. To minimize players actively thinking about these two issues together, the two questions were asked a couple of pages apart and in the demographics and character body type sections respectively. What was interesting was that character height and actual height were positively correlated (r = .10 for women and .15 for men). In other words, people who pick tall characters tend to be taller in real life as well. While it appears that most people prefer to have taller characters in virtual worlds, the data shows that virtual height tends to mirror actual height (rather than compensating for being short in real life).


Next, we'll take a look at character attractiveness. Again, it makes sense that when given the choice, most people would prefer to be on the above average side in terms of attractiveness. There was a substantial gender difference though. Men were about equally split between the average and attractive choices, while women were twice as likely to prefer the attractive choice. This helps to partly explain an earlier data point on why women were more likely to pick Night Elves than men in World of Warcraft. We'll delve into this issue more in the next section of data on specific body types.


Let's turn to body types now. I tried to come up with the typical body archetypes used in fantasy MMOs that appear in most of the games out there right now. The following were the broad body types I asked respondents about:

1) Short, aged characters (e.g., Gnomes, Dwarves)
2) Small, cute characters (e.g., Tarutaru)
3) Dark, menacing characters (e.g., Orcs, Trolls)
4) Normal, human characters (e.g., Humans, Half-Elves)
5) Large, hulking characters (e.g., Galkans, Dranei)
6) Lithe, graceful characters (e.g., Elves)

I asked respondents to rate the appeal of each body type as well as pick the type that most appeals to them. The graph below shows the overall breakdown of preferred body type split by gender. When forced to make a choice, female players were about twice as likely as male players to pick graceful and cute characters (such as Elves), while male players were about twice as likely as female players to pick large, aged, and normal human characters.

Part of what we're seeing seems to be a mirroring effect. Players seem to prefer avatars that reflect their own stereotypical gender traits. Female players prefer avatars that display feminine traits (e.g., grace) while male players prefer avatars that display masculine traits (e.g., strength and size). This doesn't quite explain the differences in the Aged, Dark, and Human types, but we'll continue look at other factors below.

If we look at the individual ratings with age, we find that age is most related to the Dark and Aged types. Dark, menacing characters were more likely to be picked by younger players (r = -.15) and this is consistent with earlier data we've seen showing that younger players prefer the "evil" side when there is a good/evil split. On the other hand, short, aged characters were more likely to be preferred by older players (r = .13). Like the finding with height and gender, it's interesting here that there is a mirroring effect as well; older players prefer older avatars.


Finally, we'll take a look at body type preference and the three main play motivations: achievement, social, and immersion. The graph below shows the average achievement scores for players who preferred each body type. Players who prefer Large and Dark characters are more achievement oriented than players who prefer Lithe and Cute characters. Mapped onto a game like World of Warcraft, this implies a lot about personality differences between Horde and Alliance players (i.e., Taurens and Orcs vs. Night Elves and Gnomes).


When we turn to the immersion scores, we see a flip in the body types. Players who prefer Cute and Lithe characters enjoy the exploration, role-playing, and customization offered in games, while players who prefer Large and Dark characters don't enjoy these activities as much. Again, the implications for Horde and Alliance factions are interesting.

And the social scores mirror the immersion scores for the most part. Players who prefer Cute and Lithe characters are more interested in socializing than players who prefer Dark and Aged characters.


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.