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New Study Examines Effects of Overweight Video Game Avatars

New Study Examines Effects of Overweight Video Game Avatars
March 01
14:41 2016
Whether it’s Fable Legends (PC, Xbox One), Fallout 4 (PC, Xbox One, PS4), or Halo 5 (Xbox One), many of today’s popular video games allow players to customize their characters – everything from clothing to facial features to weight. 

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 6.57.17 PMIn Wii Fit, players stand on a scale while the Mii (avatar) on screen adjusts to their size. A new study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication took a look at the relationship between a player and his or her avatar’s size.

In the study, student participants at the University of California, Davis played a tennis “exergame” (video game that involves movement) with accelerometers strapped to their waists and wrists. Exergames provide a light workout by using a player’s tracked body movements to control the movements of his or her avatar on screen.

The purpose of the study was to examine the Proteus Effect, a phenomenon named after a Greek god who could change his form at will. The effect occurs when a person changes his or her behavior depending on the size of the avatar they are controlling.

Co-author Jorge Peña has studied the phenomenon once before, but only in women. This time, his study involved male participants only.

Peña predicted that players paired with obese avatars would move slower than players paired with “normal sized” avatars. He also assumed that players would move less when facing an overweight opponent. Players would move quickly only when avatars were evenly matched, he believed.

If Peña’s hypotheses are true, it means the Proteus Effect is much more social than previously believed. Players would alter their behavior based on their own avatar and how that avatar compared to their opponent’s avatar.

While the study did find that women were more likely to bend at the waist (in effect, covering more distance on the court) and men were more likely to bend at the wrist (in effect, hitting the ball harder), it not not support any of Peña’s predictions.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 5.41.54 PMIn my opinion, there was a major problem with this study. The image above shows Ellie, a non-playable character from Borderlands 2. She is very obviously obese. The image at left shows the two avatars used in Peña’s study. Neither of those characters looks overtly obese. While I might expect a difference in gameplay if one character was Ellie’s size and the other character the size of the leftmost tennis player, the two characters Peña used hardly display such a difference.

“It comes down to the question of ‘How do you define obese?’” said Peña when asked about the troubling lack of size difference between the two avatars. The avatars are reportedly based on BMIs of 18.6 (the “thin” one) and 32.1 (the “fat” one). A BMI of 32.1 is considered “obese” by the NIH.

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 5.39.31 PMStudy participants had no trouble differentiating between the smaller and the bigger player. However, when picking a player for sports, one might argue that the smaller player looks scrawny and weak and the “fat” player looks muscular.

“You have a point,” said Peña in response to that same argument. In fact, Peña and his colleagues made it a point to make the bigger player look fat, not muscular. They added “cheeks and jowls” to get the point across.

Despite all the questions he’s getting, Peña remains confident that his subjects saw the bigger player as “out of shape.” I’m not convinced…but it is interesting to discuss his findings in regards to the Proteus Effect:

Participants were weighed and measured after gameplay. What Peña found “most surprising” was that there was no relationship between a player’s BMI and his avatar’s BMI.

Players moved the same way, regardless of their own weight and BMI. “I think the findings have real-world applications,” said Peña, “such as using avatars in video games to ‘nudge’ people to increase physical activity, or getting people more comfortable with small increases in physical activity.”

In the future, Peña hopes to study other aspects of exergames – such as why movement tendencies differ between female players and male players. Peña also hopes to discover if familiarity with games affects this phenomenon in order to find out if movement tendencies arise from player physiology or player experience.



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April Kuhlman

April Kuhlman

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