In real life there is no appearance modification station and in order to alter the way we are seen by the rest of the world we have to resolve to less flexible means. We can change our clothes, get tattoos or piercings. We can colour our hair, style it or choose to shave it. We can even go down a “body size” or two by changing our diet or going to the gym yet it’s pretty clear that our real life customization tools are far more limited than those in game. When we enter the virtual world of online gaming it is so easy to make the avatar representing us look however we want them to. So what lies behind the choices we make when we create these in game manifestations of ourselves?
Recent research is telling us that when our choice is not effected by in game mechanics (for an example choosing to be a certain class for a stat increase) we are prone to want to create slightly idealised versions of ourselves. This said we don’t necessarily seek perfection. Often a flaw or other resemblance to our own physical selves helps us relate to the character we are playing. We can now more easily form an attachment. Recreating our own flaws or characteristics in the avatars we make can also be a way to validate ourselves through this powerful, heroic character we are playing. This will contribute to the level of immersion we experience while playing and is the very reason game developers will choose to let us, the players, create our own unique characters.
Another motivation can be the desire to experience something unfamiliar. Take the first character I ever made, a male, black sorcerer. Being a caucasian female there was little in terms of resemblance in the appearance of me and my avatar aside from us both being human.
Creating an avatar which is of the opposite sex is interestingly enough significantly more common amongst male gamers than female. At first this might seem to suggest that the desire in men to experience being a woman is higher than that of women wanting to experience being male. This however I doubt is the case. If it was it would arguably go against most of what we can observe from social studies about our attitude towards gender. I can only theorise about the reasons here but considering the amount of time we spend playing an MMO one could speculate that many male players might simply rather spend that time looking at a female avatar than a male. If this is the case it would suggest that it is more common for male players who are less interested in immersion and story (and more focused on getting to the endgame content for an example) to create female avatars. This might also give us the idea that female players on average are more interested in immersion than men when they play a game. If so they would be more invested in creating an avatar that represents themselves. In this virtual world where being female does not say anything about your physical strength or capability a female player might be more inclined to create a powerful avatar representing her own gender in a positive way.
This said there are so many more reasons why we choose for our characters to look the way they do. Feel free to comment below and tell us what your first character in an MMO was and why you choose to make it look the way you did!