The Thesis: Practice and Escapism
Years and years ago, when dinosaurs ruled the earth, I did a psychological study that looked at the relationship between gamers and the characters they played.
I had two phases of questionnaires, one asking a lot of standard personality index questions and the second asking what kind of character the person played, how their character would handle different in-game situations and so on.
My theory was that if you compared self-acceptance (how much a person liked who they were) versus character similarity (how similar the character they choose to play was to their personality in real life) you would find an arc.
On one end, the people who didn’t like themselves very much (low self-acceptance) would choose to play characters that weren’t like them (low character similarity), because they would want to escape or (more productively) practice a different personality to arm themselves for switching in real life. I want to be a bolder person, so I practice being bold in the game.
In the middle we have people who were moderately happy about themselves (medium self-acceptance), who I predicted would play characters that were a lot like themselves (high character similarity). For them roleplaying was really just more practice being themselves. They weren’t comfortable enough to expand their horizons with radically different roles, nor were they unhappy enough to want escape from their personality.
On the other end, people who were very happy with themselves (high self-acceptance) would play characters that were different (low character similarity). Why? Because they could experiment with different roles without the risks and sanctions of being (for example) an evil dictator in the real world. They were comfortable enough with their current personality to try new things and learn from those experiments.
Fear my ancient bitmapped graphic!
After all the data was compiled and the numbers crunched, I found… well, not a lot. I didn’t have a ton of subjects (less than 50), so while there were hints of the curve I expected the results were not, as they say, statistically significant.*
The real question is: years later, do I still think this theory makes sense?
Probably. I haven’t thought about character vs player this way in a while, but it still seems to shed light on what I see in games now. Agree? Disagree? That’s what the comments section is for.
Funny story: shortly after I finished, I sent a copy of my research to the editor of Dragon Magazine. I never got a reply, but shortly thereafter came an editorial (Dragon #164, “What you are in the dark”) that was pretty much a “nothing to see here” summary, without ever mentioning the existence of my research. Go figure.
* Complete tangent: I want to see a game that uses statistical significance as a mechanic:
“I hit the ogre!”
“Yeah, but not by enough to be statistically significant. We can’t say confidently that your swing was the result of your warrior’s skill and not just chance. This fight isn’t a big enough sample size.”
“So is the ogre dead?”
“Maybe, or it might just be an artifact of the data.”