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Identification With Video Game Characters as Automatic Shift of Self-Perceptions

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Identification With Video Game Characters as Automatic Shift of Self-Perceptions

Abstract

Two experiments tested the prediction that video game players identify with the character or role they are assigned, which leads to automatic shifts in implicit self-perceptions. Video game identification, thus, is considered as a kind of altered self-experience. In Study 1 (N = 61), participants either played a first-person shooter game or a racing game. Subsequently, they performed an Implicit Association Test (IAT) designed to detect cognitive associations between character-related concepts and players' self. Findings indicate a stronger automatic association of military-related concepts to shooter players' self and a stronger association of racing-related concepts to racing game players' self. Study 2 (N = 48) replicated the IAT result from Study 1 and demonstrated the stability of the identification pattern. Implications for identification as an element of the video game experience and future research directions are discussed.
Communication Theory ISSN 1050-3293
ORIGINAL ARTICLE
The Video Game Experience as ‘‘True’’
Identification: A Theory of Enjoyable
Alterations of Players’ Self-Perception
Christoph Klimmt1, Doroth ´
ee Hefner2, & Peter Vorderer3
1 Department of Communication, Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany
2 Department of Journalism and Communication Research, Hanover University of Music and Drama, Germany
3 Department of Communication Science and Center for Advanced Media Research Amsterdam (CAMeRA),
VU University Amsterdam, The Netherlands
This article introduces an explication of video game players’ identification with a game
character or role that is based on social– psychological models of self-perception. Contrasting
with conventional (‘‘dyadic’’) notions of media user –character relationships (e.g., parasocial
interaction or affective disposition theory), (‘‘monadic’’) video game identification is defined
as a temporal shift of players’ self-perception through adoption of valued properties of the
game character. Implications for media enjoyment, the measurement of identification, and
media effects are discussed.
doi:10.1111/j.1468-2885.2009.01347.x
Audience responses to people in the media receive much attention in contemporary
communication research. The attention is justified by the fact that many products
of mass communicationnewscasts, talk shows, movies, video games, and many
morepresent people, rely on performing characters, and/or are centered around
characters. In particular, entertainment researchers often explore the way people
respond to media characters and have found such responses to be key drivers
of enjoyment experiences (e.g., Cohen, 2006; Klimmt, Hartmann, & Schramm,
2006a; Zillmann, 2006). In this article, the character-based mechanics of media
enjoyment are reviewed and applied to (players of) video games. Clearly, video
games have conquered a central position in today’s landscape of entertainment
media, and their attributesmost importantly, interactivity suggest that existing
theoretical accounts of media enjoyment be reconsidered (Sherry, 2004; Vorderer
& Bryant, 2006). This contribution proposes an alternative to observation-based
models of audiencecharacter relationships developed in research on noninteractive
entertainment such as novels or television. The goal of this proposition is to achieve
Corresponding author: Christoph Klimmt; e-mail: klimmt@uni-mainz.de
Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association 351
Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
a better theoretical fit to the video game experience. Our argument is that the
way players deal with characters or social roles in video games is best understood
as identification. We explicate a new formulation of identification in video games
that is based on socialpsychological models of self-perception and self-concept.
Subsequently, we discuss the implications of video game identification for research
on video game enjoyment and various domains of game effects.
Media users as observers: A brief review of theories of audience response
to noninteractive media characters
Observing other people who are watching television inevitably leads to descriptions
of viewers witnessing the events on the screen, including the viewers’ subjective
responses to TV characters. Early explication of parasocial interaction (Horton &
Wohl, 1956) asserts that media characters present simulations of real-life social
interactions to which viewers intuitively respond, as if they are acting within a
real social setting (Giles, 2002). The resulting virtual-social experience is the major
gratification that comes out of observing media characters performing on screen, for
instance, as an instrument to overcome real-life loneliness (Chory-Assad & Yanen,
2005; Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985).
Similarly, Zillmann’s approach to viewers’ responses to people-centered media
messages elaborates a ‘‘witness’’ (2006, p. 220) perspective. His disposition-based
theories propose that viewers judge the properties and actions of media characters
(Raney, 2006). In crime drama, morality is the primary dimension of these judgments
(Raney, 2005). Viewers then display specific emotional responses to media characters
that depend on the moral judgment they made. Positively evaluated characters
receive viewers’ empathy (Zillmann, 1991, 2006); if viewers judge a character to be
morally ‘‘bad,’’ in contrast, Zillmann’s theories expect counterempathy to occur.
That is, viewers hope that negative events happen to deserving media characters
(e.g., punishment, humiliation). Strong experimental evidence supports the notion
that televised drama is entertaining because of viewers’ emotional response patterns
described in Zillmann’s theory (e.g., Zillmann, 1996). In the current context, this
body of research is thus an important argument for the validity of observation-based
models of audiencecharacter relationships: Viewers observe characters, evaluate
them, and respond in specific emotional (enjoyable) ways.
A third recent approach to viewer responses to media characters is the PeFIC
model (Konijn & Hoorn, 2005), which is anchored in art perception and aesthetics as
well as in social and emotional psychology. The model conceives of the affect system
as separate positive and negative substrates rather than one bipolar system and thus
assumes that both involvement with and distance to a character may occur at the same
time. PeFIC is therefore similar to the previously mentioned models concerning the
proposition of audience responses (or attitudes) toward media characters as dyadic.
That is, viewers or media users perceive a social distinction between themselves (the
observers) and the media characters.
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C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
Finally, transportation theory (Green, Brock, & Kaufman, 2004, p. 319) denotes
that media users immersed in mediated narratives are likely to ‘‘develop a strong sense
of connection or familiarity with characters encountered repeatedly or continuously
over time.’’ The theory’s elements that focus on audiencecharacter relationships
thus also suggest that media users maintain a perceived difference between themselves,
who are ‘‘transported’’ into a story, and the characters, who are ‘‘already in the story.’’
In sum, the reviewed conceptual approaches describe the role of media users as
witnesses, observers, and evaluators of what media characters look like, do, and say.
This understanding still allows variation in the perceived distance between a media
user as observer and a media character: The reviewed concepts explicitly or implicitly
foresee that media users exercise active ‘‘distance management’’ (e.g., they might not
allow themselves to feel empathetic with a character, see the PeFIC model: Konijn
& Hoorn, 2005). Moreover, media techniques of character portrayal can affect the
perceived distance between audience and character (e.g., the language strategies of the
‘‘lonesome Gal’’ discussed by Horton & Wohl, 1956). Overall, however, the reviewed
well-recognized theories of usercharacter relationships are convergent in the sense
that the media user is modeled to remain (also in her own mental representation of
the exposure situation) as herself, an individual distinct from the media character.
Media users as agents: Arguments for structural differences between
user responses to media characters in interactive and
noninteractive entertainment
The reviewed dyadic concepts of audience responses to media characters have received
substantial empirical support, especially from television research (e.g., Chory-Assad
& Yanen, 2005; Rubin et al., 1985). However, the tremendous popularity of video
games (Vorderer & Bryant, 2006) and the structural differences between them and
‘‘old entertainment media’’ justify a critical reflection on the viability of observation-
based (or dyadic) models of audiencecharacter relationships in the context of
interactive entertainment.
In contrast to noninteractive entertainment media such as novels or films, video
games do not only display-mediated environments in which characters perform,
but they also enable and invite users to act by themselves in the environment
and to become an integral part of the mediated world. Many video games include
voluminous narrative elements that assign a certain role to players (Klimmt, 2003),
such as the role of a sportsman, a military commander, or an adventure heroine
such as ‘‘Lara Croft’’.TMThe way players ‘‘fill in’’ the role offered to them shapes
the properties and course of the game, which implies that players are not merely
observers of the media environment (and of the media characters in it) as they are in
television settings, but that they actively participate in the story unfolding on screen
(Vorderer, 2000). Through interactivity, then, video games (partly) override the
distance between media users and media characters: Players either directly control
one specific character or take on a social role represented in the game world (Klimmt,
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Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
2003). In both cases, players do not observe autonomous social entities performing on
screen, but they make characters perform or actually perform themselves. The concept
of presence (e.g., Wirth et al., 2007), the perceived spatial immersion into a mediated
environment, has been applied to video games (Tamborini & Skalski, 2006) and
has been linked to players’ interactive connection with the game elements as well
as the multimodal (visual, auditory, tactile) presentation of the game world. These
theoretical lines of thinking support the argument that the experience of playing
an interactive video game differs fundamentally from conventional, noninteractive
media experiences in the sense that mere observation of characters or events is not a
convincing description of game players’ ‘‘audience role.’’
Instead of providing opportunities to follow autonomous characters’ actions,
playing video games simulates the circumstances of being a media character (or
holding a social role), for instance, of being a war hero or a police officer. Video games
thus seem to facilitate a nondyadic or monadic usercharacter relationship in the
sense that players do not perceive the game (main) character as a social entity distinct
from themselves, but experience a merging of their own self and the game protagonist.
This understanding of a monadic user character relationship converges with the
concept of identification. Therefore, the relevant literature is briefly reviewed before we
explicate a specific notion of identification in the context of interactive video games.
Nondyadic usercharacter relationships: A review of identification theories
Several lines of theoretical and empirical research have addressed viewer and reader
identification with media characters. Considerable terminological and conceptual
heterogeneity in the use of ‘‘identification’’ has resulted from the different approaches.
Oatley (1994, 1999) argues that readers identify with a novel’s protagonist in the
sense that they ‘‘run’’ the cognitions and emotions occurring in the protagonist
(as far as they are described in the novel) on their own emotional and cognitive
processors (‘‘simulation theory’’). Oatley’s metaphoric explication of identification
thus implies that readers internalize the protagonist’s condition through imaginative
processes. Cognitive and affective experiences from readers’ real lives that are similar
to the protagonist’s internal state described by the novel ‘‘help’’ readers enter the
cognitiveaffective condition of the protagonist (‘‘emotion memories’’). Oatley
assumes such processes of ‘‘meeting of minds’’ to occur in readers of literary texts
because authors have the tools to let readers recognize the internal conditions of
protagonists very clearly (e.g., through ‘‘stream of consciousness’’-style writing such
as in James Joyce’s Ulysses). Applying this understanding of identification as mental
simulation of a protagonist’s internal state to television viewers’ responses to screen
performers seems to be difficult, however, because television is less well-suited to
revealing characters’ internal conditions as precisely and clearly as literary texts can.
Cohen (2001) offers a similar notion of identification and explicates a monadic
usercharacter relationship as an imaginative process that puts the media user into
the situation of the character:
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C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
While identifying with a character, an audience member imagines him- or
herself being that character and replaces his or her personal identity and role as
audience member with the identity and role of the character within the text.
While strongly identifying, the audience member ceases to be aware of his or her
social role as an audience member and temporarily (but usually repeatedly)
adopts the perspective of the character with whom he or she identifies. (Cohen,
2001, p. 251)
Cohen’s (2001) proposition to measure identification with questionnaire items
indicates a broader, not strictly monadic conceptualization, however. For instance,
the item ‘‘When character X succeeded, I felt joy, but when he or she failed, I was
sad’’ mirrors dyadic concepts of empathy (Zillmann, 1991, see above) rather than a
perceived merger of user and character identities.
A separate line of identification research has been established by Hoffner (1996)
and Hoffner and Buchanan (2005). She has elaborated ‘‘wishful identification’’ (von
Feilitzen & Linne, 1975) specifically as young viewers’ ‘‘desire to be like or act like
the character’’ (Hoffner & Buchanan, 2005, p. 325), which can be interpreted as
viewers’ motivation to overcome the social distinction between themselves and the
(admired) media character. This survey-based approach to identification theorizes
andalsomeasureswishfulidenticationasaprocessthatispartlymanifestedin
viewer behavior outside of the exposure situation. For example, one item of Hoffner
and Buchanan’s scale to measure wishful identification reads, ‘‘Sometimes I wish I
could be more like him/her,’’ referring to the target character of the survey. Research
on wishful identification thus combines conceptual similarities with parasocial
relationships (Giles, 2002; Klimmt et al., 2006a) and with celebrity worship (Brown,
Basil, & Bocarnea, 2003; McCutcheon, Ashe, Houran, & Maltby, 2003).
In sum, there is some variance in the explications of the concept of identification.
The work exemplified by Oatley, Cohen, and Hoffner and Buchanan treats the notion
in different ways. Nevertheless, at least Oatley and Cohen both qualify identification as
a nondyadic alternative to the well-recognized theories of audience response to media
characters reviewed initially in this article. However, further theoretical elaboration
of identification as a nondyadic concept appears to be necessary because (a) there
is some room for interpretation of Oatley’s (1994) simulation metaphor as well as
of Cohen’s definition of identification (which also includes dyadic processes such as
empathy and perspective taking, cf. Cohen, 2001, p. 252, and above) and (b) none
of the existing lines of identification theory has dealt with the issue of interactive
media use, such as in video games. We therefore introduce a new explication of the
concept of identification that is specifically tailored to the video game experience. We
intend to resolve the variability in the scientific use of ‘‘identification’’ by establishing
a notion that is limited to the application to the particular medium of the video
game. This way, the boundaries of the concepts (e.g., theoretical distinctions from
dyadic modes of audience responses to media characters) shall become more explicit,
and the measurement of video game identification as a variable in communication
Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association 355
Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
research (see final section of the article) is intended to become easier and more
precise.
Our conceptualization refers to a psychological reconstruction of the perceived
‘‘merger’’ of user and character within the exposure situation and builds on
socialpsychological research on the self and identity processes in order to achieve
clarity and a sufficient conceptual distinction from dyadic theories of user– character
relationships.
An identity-based explication of identification
Socialpsychological foundation
Our explication of identification refers to conceptualizations of ‘‘the self’’ advanced
in social psychology (e.g., Bracken, 1995). Following Cohen’s (2001) definition, we
propose that during media exposure, users adopt (parts of) the perceived identity
of the target character. They perceive or imagine themselves to actually be the
media character. Identification ‘‘is marked by internalizing a point of view rather
than a process of projecting one’s own identity onto someone or something else’’
(Cohen, 2001, p. 252). We suggest that this description of the identification process
should be construed as a socialpsychological phenomenon related to media users’
self-perception and identity.
From the perspective of social psychology, identification is defined as a temporary
alteration of media users’ self-concept through adoption of perceived characteristics
of a media person. Game players who identify with James Bond, for instance,
experiencefor the moment of exposurethat they are James Bond. This means
that they ascribe Bond’s salient properties, such as physical attractiveness, strength,
courage, charisma, humor, social influence, and political importance, to themselves.
For most people, their image of themselves under the condition of identification
with James Bond would differ substantially from their usual self-image. After game
exposure, internal processes (e.g., cognitions about the working day) and external cues
(e.g., friends addressing the media user by his/her real name instead of saying ‘‘007’’)
will quickly realter the situational self-concept toward the original configuration.
The translation of identification with media characters as a change of media
users’ self-perception implies that socialpsychological research on the self needs to
be imported to achieve a sound construct elaboration. ‘‘Identity and the self’’ has
evolved as an enormous field of inquiry in social psychology (e.g., Leary & Price,
2003). This work has revealed that people’s self-perceptions are highly complex,
multidimensional, and dynamic. Various lines of research address the influence
of situational factors on people’s short-term self-construal. For instance, mood
has been found to affect the way people perceive themselves and which of these
perceived properties are salient (e.g., Sedikides, 1992). DeMarree, Wheeler, and Petty
(2005) reported that priming processes affected respondents’ self-perceptions and
related behaviors, especially for individuals with a low level of self-monitoring. From
such evidence we derive the assumption that media (or specifically: video game)
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C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
characters convey self-relevant information to receivers, which means that the salient
properties of the media characters can bein the case of identification with a game
characterintegrated into media users’ momentary self-perception. In this regard,
the finding reported by DeMarree et al. that such priming of identity characteristics is
stronger in people with low self-monitoring is interesting because Cohen’s explication
of identification includes media users’ ‘‘loss of self-awareness’’ (Cohen, 2001, p. 251).
This contention is compatible with DeMarree et al.’s results on identity priming
in the sense that media users who are focused on a media character do not pay
attention to their momentary self (low self-monitoring). This would then function
as a precondition for inclusion of media character properties into the self-perception
during game exposure. Thus, the metaphor of identification as the perceived ‘‘merger’’
of player and game character can conceptually be resolved as a temporary change of
players’ self-perception through adoption of salient properties of the game character.
Conceptual and empirical support for the assumption of such a temporary identity
shift comes from socialpsychological research published by Goldstein and Cialdini
(2007). They note, ‘‘findings from a number of studies support the supposition
that individuals who feel a sense of shared, merged, or interconnected personal
identities with another see themselves as possessing many of the stable personality
traits possessed by the other’’ (Goldstein & Cialdini, 2007, p. 403). Moreover, they
demonstrate that self-perceptions change in people who get to know a person and
are instructed to take on her perspective. Specifically, participants who read an
interview with a target person described themselves as more similar to this target
person than the control group. This line of research thus supports the general notion
that self-perceptions can (situationally) include attributes perceived in (close) others,
which is a strong empirical argument for our proposition of identification as a shift
in media users’ self-perception.
The suggested reconstruction of identification as an alteration of game players’
self-perception can be further specified by using social psychological terms of the
mind as an organization of propositional networks (e.g., Strack & Deutsch, 2004).
From this perspective, a change of the self-concept means that the structure of
concepts with which the self is associated changes: Identification can be expressed as
temporarily increased activation of associations between players’ concept of ‘‘self’’
and concepts that describe the target person (media character). For instance, the
association ‘‘Ibeautiful’’ would be activated when a (female) player identifies with
a physically attractive female character. Identification with game protagonists thus
implies that associations between media users’ concept of self and attributes of the
target character are activated and strengthened, whereas associations between media
users’ self and concepts that are usually strongly linked to the self are not activated (or
activated only to a lesser extent). Such activation processes can thus occur without
conscious control or awareness of players, which has interesting implications for the
measurement of identification (see the discussion section at the end of this article).
Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association 357
Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
Application to the video game experience
The conceptualization of identification as a merger of players’ self-concept with
perceived attributes of the target character is compatible with Oatley’s (1999)
understanding of identification and may thus hold empirical relevance also for
the experience of reading stories. However, we suggest that identification as a
temporary shift of users’ self-concept is especially likely to occur in users of interactive
entertainment, especially narrative-driven video games (see also Klimmt, 2003), and
therefore limit our concept explication to the video game experience.
Most contemporary games present rich information on the character or the role
that the player is intended to control or occupy, respectively. For instance, in first-
person-shooters (FPS; Schneider, Lang, Shin, & Bradley, 2004), narrative and visual
details are given to illustrate the setting of a war hero fighting against enemy troops
or hordes. Identification with the character/role is visually cued in these games (as
well as in other genres with first-person view onto the game world) because players
look into the game world through their character’s eyes. Most importantly, however,
the interactive control of the game character (or the game properties in those cases
where there is no individual character to control) establishes a strong link between
the player and his or her character or action role (Klimmt, 2003; Klimmt, Hartmann,
& Frey, 2007; Vorderer, 2000). Therefore, it is concluded that identification with
game characters or a specified action role is likely to occur in video game players.
If the outlined understanding of identification is applied to video game players,
the gaming experience would induce players to change their self-concept toward the
properties of the character they steer or the action role they enter during game play. For
example, FPS players would include properties of the soldier they ‘‘are’’ in the game
world into their momentary self-perception. They would, as a consequence, perceive
themselves as being more courageous, stressed, cautious, aggressive, violent, dutiful,
etc., than they would perceive themselves to be under ‘‘normal’’ circumstances, that
is, without the experience within an FPS video game. Due to the direct link between
players and characters that video game interactivity facilitates, it is reasonable to
assume that very quick and profound alterations of players’ self-perception happen
through identification. This process may occur through automatic responses to the
gaming situation and be sustainable throughout the game session as self-relevant
information is experienced continuously with the ongoing game.
We expand our explication of video game identification by discussing some
process characteristics of ‘‘identifying’’ and examining conceptual boundaries and
overlaps with alternative terms and concepts (we thank three anonymous reviewers
for their suggestions in this regard). First, it is important to clarify video game
identification as a highly selective process. Even if the experienced merger of player
and character identity occurs rapidly and intuitively, we argue that identification only
covers some personality dimensions, but does not imply a full identity replacement
in the sense that players forget everything about their real-life self when identifying
with a game protagonist. Most importantly, dimensions on which players can
‘‘import’’ character attributes into their momentary self-perception are limited by
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C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
media technology. For instance, the lack of full-body tactile feedback lowers complete
‘‘presence’’ in the game world (Wirth et al., 2007) and thus leaves some indication
of separation between players’ actual self and the game protagonist. Active thinking
(‘‘suspension of disbelief’’) may render such differences less important (Wirth et al.,
2007), but it is still less likely that players adopt state variables of the game character
that are not transmitted through game technology. Physical pain, hunger, and
tiredness are thus argued to not be dimensions of the players’ self-character synthesis.
This may change with the advent of future entertainment systems (Murray, 1997),
but concerning the past and current generations of video game technology, we
suggest identification processes to be constrained by symbolic rather than physical
links between game characters and players.
In turn, this renders cognition-based dimensions of self-perceptions, such as
goals (Cohen, 2001), attitudes, and evaluations, as well as social dimensions, such
as attractiveness, successfulness, and respect by others, as key dimensions of the
identity merger between player and game protagonist. Players receive and produce
information about these dimensions of character attributes continuously through
watching, listening, and making the character act in the game world. An episode in
which a player controlling the action hero ‘‘Max Payne’’TM defeats a group of hostile
urban gang representatives, for instance, offers material for a player’s self-concept
alteration on dimensions like courage, dexterity, moral integrity, and success (which
is the core of our understanding of identification). Such experience may also change
the player’s emotions like anxiety, stress, and anger level toward the levels the
game character is displaying (or assumed by the player to hold) in that situation. But
identification is not likely to cover physical dimensions such as pain or breathlessness.
From this perspective, identification is therefore a selective phenomenon that does
not fully equalize a game character and players’ self-perception.
Selectivity of identification dimensions also relates to the authenticity of the game
experience. One could argue that reality-like game environments and characters are
more likely to foster alteration of players’ self-perception, as the attributes mirror
players’ real-life experiences and can thus be connected to players’ self more easily.
In turn, fictionalfantastic characters (probably the majority of the characters in
popular video games) would be less capable of facilitating temporary identity shifts
in players (we thank an anonymous reviewer for this comment). However, we argue
that players can also ‘‘benefit’’ in terms of identification and its entertainment value
(see next section) from highly implausible, unrealistic characters, such as dwarfs
in ‘‘World of Warcraft’’.TM In such cases, the change of self-perception may only
occur on one narrowly defined dimension (such as power or integrity) that even
implausible characters can display in a salient and consistent manner. While the
issue of perceived realism (Shapiro, Pena-Herborn, & Hancock, 2006) deserves more
conceptual and empirical inquiry in the present context, we suggest that due to
selectivity of identification processes, plausibility versus fictionality is less relevant
concerning the likelihood that identification will occur.
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Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
Second, video game identification is argued to be unstable over time. Cohen
(2001) has argued for identification as a fleeting experience, and Vorderer (1993) has
found that media users are capable of shifting involvement levels dynamically (and
instrumentally). That is, a moment of intense identification and substantial change
of self-perception through adoption of character attributes may be followed by an
episode of greater perceived distance between the player and character. For example,
in an FPS episode, the character may die. In this case, the target for identification
processes is temporarily unavailable, which necessarily will make players return to
real-world self-perceptions (e.g., Ravaja, Turpeinen, Saari, Puttonen, & Keltikangas-
J¨
arvinen, 2008). Players will notice their insufficient performance that made the
character die from enemy bullets and reflect on the self-perception dimension of
competence. Once the character has been revived and players try again, strong
identification may reoccur in the subsequent episode. So we argue that although
video game identification can reach levels of profound temporal identity shifts,
identification intensity is by no means stable throughout game play or independent
of players’ active distance management (see introduction section on observation-
based approaches). In this sense, our identification concept converges with those
explications of Presence that emphasize temporal dynamics and intensity variations
of the experience (e.g., Wirth et al., 2007).
Selectivity and variability of identification are not only affected by media technol-
ogy and situation dynamics, but also by players’ motivation. Players are capable of
affecting the dimensions on which they want to identify with a game character. The
motivation to focus on one or a few personality dimensions, within which a person
wants to experience conditions that are different from normal, primarily serves the
purpose of maximizing enjoyment (see next section). Players may also want to limit
identification (in terms of affected self domains or in terms of identification inten-
sity) to avoid undesired experiences. For instance, players of ‘‘Grand Theft Auto’’TM
games almost inevitably face situations in which morally inappropriate actions serve
game goals such as success or survival. While video game players have been found to
creatively manage moral concern (Klimmt, Schmid, Nosper, Hartmann, & Vorderer,
2006), there remains a risk of negative experience through immorality. To avoid such
negative experience and preserve media enjoyment, players may focus on character
dimensions other than morality (e.g., dexterity, assertiveness) for temporal shifts
in their self-perceptions. This does not imply, however, that undesired changes
in self-perception can be suppressedautomatic information processing such as
identity priming (see above) may occur even if players intend to avoid identity shifts
of certain qualities or intensities. The capability to control how much identification
occurs probably depends on developmental factors and media literacy (which is also
connected to development). Adult players should be able to exercise more mental
control over shifts in self-experiences (e.g., in terms of meta-cognition such as
evaluations of their current self-perception) than children (Flavell, 1979).
Finally, our explication of video game identification displays similarities with
common understandings of roleplay, so we seek further conceptual clarification by
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C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
discussing the relationship between video game identification and roleplaying. This
debate is specifically relevant to video game identification, as one important game
genre that is supposed to facilitate strong identification with characters or roles is
called ‘‘Role Playing Games’’ (RPG; see, for instance, Yee, 2007). Similar to the
concept of identification, there are different perspectives and definitions of roleplay
available. The psychological perspective emphasizes the act of simulating someone
(or something) different from a person’s normal identity. For example, according
to Curry and Arnaud (1974, p. 274), ‘‘roleplay occurs when the child transforms
himself in pretend play to be a person or object other than himself, as indicated
by his verbal and/or motoric enactment of his perception of that role.’’ Similarly,
Hamilton (1976) differentiates dimensions of roleplay that relate to the content of
identity simulation (e.g., playing the role of another person vs. playing the role of
oneself in a different condition) and the mode of simulation (e.g., mere imagination
vs. actual behavior). In contrast, a sociological perspective emphasizes the element of
meeting social requirements through roleplay. Roleplay is understood as the adoption
of behaviors considered to be ‘‘appropriate’’ in a given social context and effective
for the fulfillment of social stakeholders’ expectations (e.g., Kelley, Osbourne, &
Hendrick, 1974). For instance, the social situation of being a teacher in a classroom
demands the execution of a specific set of behaviors (including the suppression of
alternative behaviors). Rather than an act of simulation, this perspective implies
roleplay as an act of self-adjustment to social forces.
Our account of video game identification seems to be exchangeable with the
notion of roleplay as active identity simulation, primarily because game interactivity
leaves degrees of freedom to the player in terms of how she is acting out the character
or role assigned to her. Because the game provides immediate feedback to player
action (Klimmt et al., 2007), playing video games is also about self-adjustment to
social forces: If players do not adopt behaviors compatible with what the game world
expects from them, they will receive negative feedback such as failure or boredom.
Clearly, identification and the concept of roleplay converge as theoretical construals
of the video game experience.
Given the broad definitions of roleplay and our focused explication of video game
identification, it is difficult to mark sharp conceptual boundaries between roleplay
and identification. We propose one conceptual distinction between our explication
of video game identification and (digital) roleplaying. This distinction refers to the
issue of degrees of freedom in individual agents’ activity of self-alteration:
The least degrees of freedom are available to readers who ‘‘identify’’ with a story
character (‘‘meeting of minds’’; cf. Oatley, 1999). Because the reader cannot affect
any attributes or actions of the target character, the target character appears
as a complete social entity of her/his own right, which is most likely to result
in observation-based audience responses such as empathy and/or pasrasocial
interaction (see second section above).
Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association 361
Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
In contrast, video game characters or roles represent a mixture of fixed attributes
prescribed by the medium and flexible attributes that can be affected by players’
individual decisions. For example, in the ‘‘Call of Duty’’TM FPS series, fixed
attributes of the game protagonist are the occupation of the soldier, the story
and conflicts he is involved in, and the military objectives assigned to him.
Player-affected attributes are, among others, the assertiveness, remorse(lessness),
precision, and tactical intelligence with which the protagonist proceeds through
the war stories told in the game. Identification with the game character is thus
an active process, as players do have limited influence on the attributes and
actions of the target character. Still, playing a video game implies adherence to
predefined rules, objectives, and norms. Players are not completely free in their
decisions about the target character and his circumstances but also depend on
game developers’ decisions concerning the character. Video game identification
thus means both adopting fixed attributes of the target character and creating
parts of these attributes through individual decisions. The degrees of freedom in
the production of players’ altered self-experience are thus higher in video game
identification than story reading.
In free roleplay, finally, agents hold the most degrees of freedom, as the boundaries
of the target character, her attributes and actions, are not made explicit by an
author or developer. These boundaries merely depend on the player’s decisions
of how the target role (e.g., the role of a police officer) is to be filled. Roleplayers
do not need to consider any authorial decisions or game rules. They make all
decisions and rules by themselves. Shifts of self-perceptions that arise from free
roleplay, then, are fully imaginativeconstructive acts that solely result from the
agents’ fantasy (Curry & Arnaud, 1974).
From this degrees-of-freedom perspective, the term identification is best suited for
the video game experience, as it combines predefined character attributes that players
(can) adopt for their self-perception with individual construction of character/self-
attributes in the moment of exposure. Noninteractive media experiences, in contrast,
only offer fully predefined target characters (and thus no usercharacter connection
facilitated through consequential user decisions). Free roleplay does not offer prede-
fined character attributes at all, but leaves all-important decisions about the target
character to the player.
A broader understanding of roleplay (e.g., Hamilton, 1976) would question this
continuum of degrees of freedom in self-altering activities. From such a perspective, all
modes differentiated here (identification with a novel or TV character, identification
in video games, and free roleplay) would be manifestations of roleplaying. From a
communication perspective, however, the distinction is useful to explain the specific
appeal of game enjoyment (see next section), as video game play is the experiential
synthesis of individual playful behavior and mass communication reception (Klimmt,
2001; Murray, 1997; Sherry, 2004).
362 Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association
C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
Empirical research that lends support to our explication of video game identifica-
tion is sparse. Still, the existing studies support our assumptions well. McDonald and
Kim (2001) investigated young game players and found a strong sense of identification
(however with some conceptual overlap of dyadic and monadic perspectives) with
game characters (‘‘When I die, I feel small’’). Hefner, Klimmt, and Vorderer (2007)
provided a direct test of the importance of video game interactivity for character iden-
tification: In their experiment, participants either played an FPS or merely watched a
video recording of the same game; thus, interactivity was manipulated. Participants
who played the game by themselves produced significantly higher identification
scores afterward than respondents who had only observed game events without
interactive participation. Hence, there is some initial empirical evidence available
to support the proposition of video games’ specific capacity to elicit identification
processes in players.
In sum, our account of player responses to game protagonists as a process of
identification mirrors the etymology of the term nicely. ‘‘Identification’’ may be
translated from Latin as ‘‘making oneself the same as someone or something.’’ The
German ‘‘Duden’’ Dictionary notes that ‘‘identification’’ means ‘‘emotionally making
oneself equal with another person or group and adopting her/his/their motives and
ideals into one’s Self’’ (Drosdowski, 1982, p. 327, translation by authors). The
elaboration of video game identification as players adopting character attributes to
their temporary self-perception represents this synthesis of oneself and ‘‘the other’’
well. Given that the term identification has been applied to different media experiences
in the past (see above), we argue that models of interactive video game experiences
can claim the utility of ‘‘identification’’ with an especially strong legitimization: As
players actively connect to the character (through controls and commands), the link
between character and players’ self is, in our view, more direct, close, and evident than
for other media examples, such as watching TV characters. Therefore, we suggest
considering the video game experience as the ‘‘true’’ occurrence of identification (see
also conclusion section).
Identification and media enjoyment: Altered self-perceptions reduce
self-discrepancies
Our approach to identification with video game characters can explain why iden-
tification is enjoyable for many players. Drawing back to escapism research (Katz
& Foulkes, 1962), identification as temporary change of players’ self-perception
is assumed to serve the desire to evade troublesome real-life circumstances. Such
problems frequently arise from people’s recognition of themselves as different from
the self they idealize or strive for (self-discrepancy; cf. Higgins, 1987). For instance,
conceptions of someone’s ideal self may include the notion of being courageous,
while the person’s real behavior in a situation of conflict with a supervisor is not
very courageous. The detection of differences between actual self and desired (ideal)
Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association 363
Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
self causes negative emotions such as shame or guilt (Gonnerman, Parker, Lavine, &
Huff, 2000; Higgins, 1987).
The enjoyment of identification with a game character can thus be theoretically
grounded in the reduction of self-discrepancy for the duration of game exposure.
A player who perceives himself as less courageous than he actually wants to be (high
self-discrepancy on the dimension of courage) can reduce his self-discrepancy by
identifying withthat is, adopting the salient properties of a courageous game
character such as James Bond. For the period of identification with James Bond,
the self-perception of the media user is altered toward the characteristics of Bond,
including an increased level of courage. Identification with James Bond thus leads
to a temporarily higher self-ascribed level of courage, which consequently reduces
or even eliminates the self-discrepancy (on this dimension). Such reductions or
complete resolutions of self-discrepancies are accompanied by positive experiences
due to increased self-esteem (Higgins, 1987; Moretti & Higgins, 1990), which would
then contribute to video game enjoyment. Reduction of self-discrepancy achieved
through identification with a game character that is more close to the ideal self is
thus one ‘‘route’’ of escapism in the sense of Katz and Foulkes (1962). Interestingly,
Katz and Foulkes had already mentioned ‘‘identification’’ as an underlying process
of escapistic media use. This approach is in line with the concept of ‘‘possible selves,’’
introduced by Markus and Nurius (1986). ‘‘Possible selves represent individuals’
ideas of what they might become, what they would like to become, and what they are
afraid of becoming’’ (Markus & Nurius, 1986, p. 954). If, for example, the possible
selves of a male adolescent include the idea of being a brave and strong person, and
if he regards this specific possible self as desirable (which is likely for that case), he
would probably be willing to adopt the attributes of strength and braveness in his
momentary self-representation. A video game offering the opportunity to activate
the ‘‘brave and strong’’ possible self would thus evoke a pleasurable experience of
‘‘being like one wants to be.’’
Compared to the use of noninteractive media, reducing self-discrepancy through
video game identification holds significant advantages in terms of enjoyment value.
First, as video game characters offer a mixture of fixed elements to integrate in
players’ self-perception and flexible elements that players can individualize (see
previous section), the probability that the reduction of self-discrepancy relates to
relevant domains of self-perception (Boldero & Francis, 2000) is higher than if
TV viewers identify with a complete TV protagonist who does not leave room for
personalization in terms of self-perceptions. Second, due to the interactivity of game
play, players’ self-experiences are highly ‘‘convincing’’ in the sense that they result
from players’ own actions in a simulated world instead of mere imagination (as in free
roleplay) or mere observation of a TV character’s actions (as when watching TV). If
players temporarily reduce self-discrepancies through video game identification, the
enjoyable self-experience is therefore argued to be more profound and sustainable
compared to noninteractive modes of media entertainment.
364 Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association
C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
Reduced self-discrepancy as an explanation for the enjoyment of video game
identification connects nicely with Jansz’s (2005) theoretical explanation of violent
video games’ appeal to young males. Jansz suggests that simulated emotional
experiences of masculine identity are a major goal of male adolescents who play
violent video games. Our identity-based explication of identification fits well with this
understanding, as the identity work adolescents perform with violent video games
can be construed as managing self-discrepancies in terms of (hyper)masculinity.
Playing violent games allows them to temporarily shift self-perceptions along the
dimension of masculinity and try out ‘‘how it feels’’ to be close or far away from an
ideal super-masculine identity (see also Kirsh, 2003).
Several studies provide empirical support for the hypothesized connections
between identification, reduction of self-discrepancy, and media enjoyment. Research
on wishful identification (see Hoffner & Buchanan, 2005, for a recent summary)
has found that the desire to be similar to or like a media character is increased by
generally valued attributes of a media character such as success and social support
by other characters. This finding connects to the assumption that adopting media
character attributes in one’s self-concept (i.e., identification, as explicated above)
reduces self-discrepancy, as valued attributes such as success and receiving support
from others are likely to differ between media users’ self-perceptions and media
characters designed to be appealing. Results reported by Sherry, Lucas, Greenberg,
and Lachlan (2006) can be explained in a similar way: They found ‘‘fantasy’’ (e.g.,
‘‘I play video games because they let me do things I can’t do in real life’’) to be a
relevant motivator of video game play (see also Malone, 1981).
More specific evidence for the link between entertainment use and reduction
of self-discrepancy comes from studies reported in social psychology. Moskalenko
and Heine (2003) found that watching television reduces perceived self-discrepancy
and thus also decreases negative self-evaluations. Their explanation focuses on
distraction processes rather than identification in our sense, however: According to
the authors, watching TV helps people avoid reflection on their self-discrepancies
and thus facilitates positive conditions of subjective self-awareness (see also Henning
& Vorderer, 2001).
Bessi`
ere, Seay, and Kiesler (2007) have published the most direct empirical
support for the proposed relationship between video game identification, reduction
of self-discrepancy, and game enjoyment. They asked respondents about their actual
self, their ideal self, and the personality of their ‘‘World of Warcraft’’TM video game
character, in each case concerning the same set of personality dimensions. Findings
indicate that the game character is more similar to players’ ideal self than to their
actual self, which suggests that identification with a game character does indeed
reduce self-discrepancy.
Whereas initial evidence is available on the relationship between video game
identification, reduced self-discrepancy, and game enjoyment, the interplay between
game achievement, identification, and the fun of gaming is less well-understood.
Successful game play has been argued to fuel game enjoyment (Klimmt & Hartmann,
Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association 365
Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
2006; Sherry, 2004). However, no empirical results have been published so far
that address the possibility that (a) players reach the strongest identification in the
moment of success (i.e., when the ‘‘power’’ dimension of their heroic game character
is most salient) and/or (b) identification follows game success in the sense that
players admit alterations of their self-perception mostly when playing games that
they can master to a satisfying degree. The justification of this assumption is that a
lack of mastery could cause permanent dissociation between players’ self and game
character (e.g., the character would ‘‘die’’ frequently and terminate identification)
and thus eliminate game enjoyment. Without mastery, neither achievement-based
nor identification-based game enjoyment would occur.
Conclusions
The present article has linked the concept of identification with media characters to
socialpsychological accounts of self-perceptions in order to derive an explication of
identification that is explicitly designed to mirror video game players’ cognitive and
affective responses to interactive playing situations. The construction of video game
identification as a process of altered self-perception allows us to use and investigate
identification as an alternative to dyadic concepts of user responses to media char-
acters such as empathy (Zillmann, 1991), parasocial interaction (Horton & Wohl,
1956), and the PeFIC model (Konijn & Hoorn, 2005). Moreover, it represents a
chance to resolve past terminological and conceptual confusions concerning ‘‘identi-
fication,’’ as the psychological process in our explication is etymologically compatible
with ‘‘identification’’ (see explication section) and the conceptual boundaries of
identification are set explicitly with regard to the video game experience. Similar
accounts may be pursued to examine the theoretical plausibility and increase the
conceptual precision for ‘‘identification’’ in other domains such as TV appreciation
(Cohen, 2001). This way, communication theory may advance toward sorting out
those modes of media enjoyment that belong to the categories of monadic versus
dyadic experiences of media characters and also toward resolving issues of concep-
tual convergences, such as the relationship between video game identification and
Presence in video games (Tamborini & Skalski, 2006). While there is some initial
evidence that supports our propositions concerning video game identification, a rigid
empirical research line is required to back up the conceptual integration and guide
future model enhancement. We therefore draw our remaining conclusions first in
terms of empirical research on video game identification and then address conceptual
implications for entertainment media effects and society at large.
The construal of identification in video games as altered self-perception of players
allows us to utilize methodologies from social psychology to test the resulting
assumptions. If players perceive themselves to temporarily ‘‘become’’ a media
character, such processes might be accessible for methods of self-description (e.g.,
through attribute lists similar to self-report measures of affect, see Watson, Clark,
& Tellegen, 1988, or general attributes lists as used by Goldstein & Cialdini, 2007).
366 Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association
C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
Scholars in social psychology have advanced alternative measures for social –cognitive
processes that might be even more useful to measure identification. The so-called
implicit measures (DeHouwer, 2006; Greenwald, McGhee, & Schwartz, 1998) may
assess (temporarily activated) associations between ‘‘self’’ and other concepts that
refer to salient attributes of the game character with which a person is or has
been identifying. Thus, although the relevant properties and capabilities of implicit
measures are still being examined (DeHouwer, 2006; Hofmann, Gschwender, Nosek,
& Schmitt, 2005), these methods could emerge as valuable tools for the assessment
of identification as change of self-perceptions. In general, given the multiple relevant
variables (players’ actual self, players’ ideal self, shifts in perceived self through
identification, self-discrepancy, and game enjoyment), it is reasonable to aim for
multimethod (and multistudy) approaches to achieve further empirical solidification
of the conceptual propositions outlined in this article. Studies replicating and
expanding the questionnaire-based approach of Bessi`
ere et al. (2007) and examining
video game identification in different game genres (e.g., FPS versus strategy games)
would make especially important contributions to the empirical research program.
In addition to measuring the actual shifts in players’ self-perception, there is also
a need for empirical explorations of whether players can be(come) aware of their
video game identification and/or identification as an automatic and even unconscious
process (e.g., Bargh, 1994). This question is linked to issues of players’ abilities to
affect the identification process, such as the dimensions on which they admit their
self-perception to be altered through identification with a game character. It is also
relevant to the explanation of game selection (e.g., Hartmann & Klimmt, 2006; Lucas
& Sherry, 2004): Do players actively search for certain identification experiences
and select their games according to the expected alterations of self-perceptions? Or
is identification a (welcome) byproduct of game play that is subordinate to other
motivations, such as flow or mastery? Finally, the question of noticeability and player
reflection on identification also relates to the temporal variations of identification:
Altered self-perceptions may linger between moments of players being aware of
their shift in self-perception and phases of unnoticed automatic cognitions. If such
temporal variation does occur, how do the different degrees of noticeability affect
game enjoyment? Do experienced players display patterns of identification that are
different from novice players? Does successful game play (e.g., completing a level
by killing an ‘‘end-boss’’) affect intensity and/or noticeability of identification (see
end of previous section)? Once a solid measure of video game identification as
altered self-perception has been established, these related questions can and should
be addressed empirically as well.
While the empirical examination of the identification process explicated here
needs to be continued and expanded, our considerations already suggest reflection
on implications for game effects beyond the actual enjoyment experience and
connected motivation to play video games (Vorderer & Bryant, 2006). Two pathways
of conceptual relevance of video game identification for game impact appear to
be interesting. One is the attitudinal and behavioral consequences of identification
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Video Game Identification C. Klimmt et al.
changing short- and long-term self-construals in (frequent) game players. Video
game identification may affect the set of players’ possible selves (Markus & Nurius,
1986) and the ‘‘normal’’ self-construal in the sense of associations between certain
concepts and ‘‘I.’’ A recent experiment (Cin, Gibson, Zanna, Shumate, & Fong, 2007)
revealed that viewers who ‘‘identified’’ with smoking movie protagonists displayed
stronger implicit associations between ‘‘smoking’’ and ‘‘self,’’ which resulted in a
stronger short-term motivation to smoke. Similar consequences of identification
seem to be plausible in the context of video game effects (e.g., the impact of
game violence; Konijn, Bijvank, & Bushman, 2007). Therefore, both short- and
long-term implications of identification as change of self-concept deserve theoretical
and empirical research efforts. Hoffner’s (1996) and Hoffner and Buchanan (2005)
approach to ‘‘wishful identification’’ is an interesting foundation in this regard.
The second pathway through which identification-based game effects may work
relates to the motivational consequences of increased self-discrepancy after game
exposure. If game enjoyment benefits from reduced self-discrepancy during game
play (Higgins, 1987; see above), the end-of-game exposure is likely to direct players’
attention back to a ‘‘normal’’ self-perception that comes with higher self-discrepancy.
Game players are supposed to be capable of managing differences between game
contexts and social reality (e.g., Klimmt et al., 2006), so reentry into a normal
self-condition should not necessarily result in adverse emotional experiences of high
self-discrepancy. However, the positive self-experience during game exposure may
increase some players’ motivation to reduce self-discrepancy on relevant dimensions
with greater sustainability. For instance, in health communication, self-perceptions
have been examined in the context of media exposure and body image (e.g.,
Heinberg & Thompson, 1995; Stice & Shaw, 1994; Groesz, Levine, & Murnen, 2001).
Identification with a (thin) game character (that is accompanied by temporarily
reduced self-discrepancy on the dimension of thinness) may contribute to players’
body dissatisfaction outside of game situations (i.e., the self-discrepancy concerning
physical properties becomes a more pressing problem), which may then feed into
problematic eating behavior. So the pleasurable self-experience during game use that
is facilitated through identification may affect game effect processes through the
negatively valenced contrast of the ‘‘normal’’ self-experience after game exposure
(McDonald & Kim, 2001). In this sense, players’ efficacy in identity management
would be the critical factor that moderates both game enjoyment and (long-term)
game effects. An alternative prediction could be based on reduced self-discrepancy
during game play lasting beyond the game experience. If video game identification
were capable of narrowing the perceived gap between ideal self and actual self (e.g., on
the dimension of success) for several hours after game play, this mode of video game
enjoyment could transfer directly into life satisfaction and contribute to positive
self-development (cf. Durkin & Barber, 2002), as a general self-perception of skill and
competence would arise from game use. Clearly, the question of how self-discrepancy
is affected after game play, when identification with a game character is over, deserves
more empirical exploration. Other domains of identity formation beyond body
368 Communication Theory 19 (2009) 351– 373 ©2009 International Communication Association
C. Klimmt et al. Video Game Identification
image and competence are certainly also candidate domains for positive or negative
identification-based game effects and should thus be considered in thematic effects
studies.
Finally, what are the implications for society at large if video games as ‘‘identity
labs’’ are increasingly spreading to homes in industrialized and developing countries?
People have always used various techniques to simulate alternate or altered identities,
especially various types of play (Sutton-Smith, 1997). Mass communication has been
serving the purpose of such elaboration of alternate identities or possible selves ever
since its inception (e.g., radio shows like the ‘‘Lonesome Gal’’ offering the listener
to simulate a lover’s identity; cf. Horton & Wohl, 1956). In this sense, modern mass
media have always been popular as they helped people imagine themselves being
closer to what (and how) they wanted to be (Katz & Foulkes, 1962). Video games,
and the identification processes they facilitate, continue this escapistic function of
older mass media, and their interactivity seems to lift this function to a new level of
effectiveness. For many of the younger generations, this mode of entertaining identity
play is already more attractive than older mass media. Therefore, the general societal
implication of video game identification is twofold. First, positive consequences of
media escapism, such as recreation, relief of stress, and well-being (Klimmt, 2008)
may occur in more users, in more situations, and in more satisfying intensities.
Second, the same may be true for negative societal consequences of escapism,
including addictive game play, identity confusion, and facilitation of undesired
game effects such as body dissatisfaction. Communication theory can describe and
explain these functions and underlying processes. The ensuing empirical research
must demonstrate the validity and document the frequency and magnitude of the
phenomenon. High-level conclusions in terms of transformations of society will only
be possible once the short- and long-term implications of video games as personal
identity laboratories have been studied with more depth and breadth.
Acknowledgments
This research work has been supported by the European Commission (Project
‘‘FUGA: The fun of gaming,’’ NEST-PATH-IMP-28765). We thankfully acknowledge
the Commission’s support.
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