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When Virtual Meets Reality: A Qualitative Exploration of Identity and Decision-Making in Video Game Avatar Customization

Electronic Theses and Dissertations

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Due to recent media events concerning the lack of social progressivism in the video game industry, many game designers have attempted to expand character design in customization menus for in-game avatars. While this does signify an important step in the direction of being more inclusive in the realm of gaming, most of these design choices have been critiqued for including oversimplified assumptions about certain identities. The goal of this study was to explore how gamers make sense of avatar customization choices in first-person role-playing video games, and where social identity and identification processes fit into their framework for making these decisions. This qualitative study used previous research in queer game studies to ground theoretical patterns that came up in semi-structured focus group and one-on-one interviews with adult gamers. Participants (n = 22) of diverse genders, races/ethnicities, and ages shared their experiences with avatar customization menus in first-person role-playing games in either a small, in-person focus group discussion (n = 5) or during a one-on-one virtual interview (n = 17). Results revealed that gamers with traditionally marginalized identities do put forth a concerted effort to choose avatar characteristics that reflect their own identity to at least some degree. Gender, skin tone, body type, and hair/hair type were the four identity elements that consistently appeared in the interviews as the most important aspects of their identity to be reflected in their avatars. Accordingly, I argue that certain identities (or parts of one’s identity) play a key role in how individuals shape, construct, and understand their avatar, which is especially important for players with historically marginalized identities. At the same time, the results suggest that avatar customization can also play a critical role in identity formation and exploration, specifically regarding gender identity and expression. The implications of this study demonstrate that future game design research should investigate how current avatar customization choices reflect these elements, how to address the expanding diversity of the gaming community, and where the industry can make changes to ensure a fully immersive and enjoyable gaming experience.
Queer Theory
Video Games
Purcell, AIexandria Jordan (author)
Gill, Rebecca (committee chair)
Cunningham, Phillip L. (committee member)
Gupta, Kristina (committee member)
2022-05-24T08:36:04Z (accessioned)
2022 (issued)
Communication (discipline)
2024-05-23 (liftdate)
2024-05-23 (terms)
http://hdl.handle.net/10339/100742 (uri)
en (iso)
Wake Forest University
When Virtual Meets Reality: A Qualitative Exploration of Identity and Decision-Making in Video Game Avatar Customization

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