"That's me in the game": Being present and identifying avatar

Date of Award

May 2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Mass Communications


Frank Biocca


Avatar, Embodied experience, Media violence, Neuroimaging, Presence, Virtual environment

Subject Categories

Social and Behavioral Sciences


Customization of an in-game character, or "avatar," is a core feature in modern video games and has the capacity to exert a profound impact on the user experience. This dissertation is concerned with the question of how the appearance of a users' avatar influences them - specifically how avatars that look like the users affect the sense of their body, their behavior in the virtual environment, and the psychological effects of the virtual environment. The question is explored through two separate but related studies.

The first study focuses on how avatar customization and realism can reduce the possible adverse effects of violent video games while maintaining high levels of enjoyment. Results from both self-report measures and physiological stress reactivity (assessed by heart rate variability) indicate that participants, who are able to customize or create self-resembling avatars, experience less stress and aggressive thoughts, more enjoyment, and greater presence in the game, while exhibiting less aggressive and more prosocial behaviors. Thus, avatar customization was shown to have a positive effect on users' thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The theoretical and practical implications of this study are discussed in terms of media violence effects.

The second study utilizes neuroimaging (functional near-infrared spectroscopy) to investigate possible neural correlates of embodied experience through the avatar, specifically how the human brain responds to different types of avatar embodiment (deindividuated vs. self-resembling bodies). Results from both self-report and regional brain activity measures (changes in cerebral hemodynamics) reveal different levels of activation in the supplementary motor area by the types of avatar and indicate that this brain region is associated with subjective embodied experience. A key finding of this study was a strong negative correlation of the neural activity in the supplementary motor area with the behavioral level of embodied experience (i.e., the experience of being engaged with the actions of the avatar). Possible interpretations of this finding are discussed in terms of avatar self-identification and avatar embodiment.


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