Priming effects of virtual avatars on aggression: Influence of violence and player gender
HENG Shupeng; ZHOU Zongkui; NIU Gengfeng; LIU Qingqi
(Key Laboratory of Adolescent Cyberpsychology and Behavior, Ministry of Education; School of Psychology, Central China Normal University, and Hubei Human Development and Mental Health Key Laboratory, Wuhan 430079, China)
Abstract： A virtual avatar is a video game player’s self-presentation in virtual space. The physical appearance of an avatar can prime stereotypes and behavioral scripts stored in memory. The relation between avatar appearance and aggression has been substantially confirmed, but there are open questions about the conditions in which this association is strongest, and what the relation between avatar identification and aggression is. This study used a cue-priming paradigm in two experiments to test the effect of avatar appearance on avatar identification and aggression in violent and nonviolent video games; to test gender as a moderator of these effects; and to test the correlation between avatar identification and aggression. The first experiment investigated the effect of avatar appearance on the level of avatar identification and aggression in violent and nonviolent video games. This experiment employed a 2 (Avatar Appearance: justice/evil) × 2 (Game Violence: violent/non-violent) between-subjects design. 75 male participants were randomly assigned to play a violent or non-violent video game using an avatar representing justice or evil. Based on the first experiment, the second experiment explored the interaction effect of avatar appearance and gender on the level of avatar identification and aggression in a violent video game. This experiment also employed a 2 (Avatar Appearance: justice/evil) × 2 (Gender: male/female) between- subjects design. 42 male and 36 female participants were randomly assigned to play a violent video game using an avatar representing justice or evil. After game play, the amount of hot sauce given by participants to an ostensible partner who hated spicy food was used to measure aggression, and an avatar identification scale was used to measure identification with the avatar. The results showed that: (1) The relations between avatar appearance, avatar identification and aggression were influenced by the violence of game. In the violent video game, the identification with the justice avatar was significantly higher than with the evil avatar, and the evil avatar elicited significantly higher aggression than the justice avatar. In the non-violent game, there was a marginally significant difference between the identification with the justice or evil avatar, but there was no significant difference between the level of aggression elicited by the justice or evil avatar. (2) In the violent video game, the avatar effects were moderated by player gender. Specifically, the avatar identification of female participants was significantly affected by avatar appearance, whereas that of the male participant was not. Avatar appearance had a stronger impact on the aggression of males than females. (3) There was a significant correlation between avatar identification and aggression, which was moderated by game violence and gender. In conclusion, the results of this study supported the priming effect theory and were partially consistent with the existing research. Several factors influenced the effect of avatar appearance on aggression, including a video game factor (violent or non-violent game) as well as an individual factor (male or female), and the complex relationship between avatar identification and aggression. One social implication of the study is that game designers should embed more positive associations, situations, and stereotypes in games to provide users more positive potential priming effects.