Thursday, 28 August 2014

[Tabletop Musings] The Proteus Effect Part 1

Hello World,

When playing a tabletop game we more often than not don the mask or persona of a fictional character. For the duration of the session we determine the actions and decisions of this character, so it is pretty apparent that the player has a great effect on who that character is.  But what if that’s a two way street? What if the characters we play have a direct effect on the decisions we make in game? How about out of game?

Nick Yee, Author of the book “The Proteus Paradox” has done numerous studies over the years all focusing on how avatars influence how we act in video game. Yee’s most notable experiment had participants play a game in they controlled an avatar with the goal of communicating with a test administrator (who they thought was another participant). There were two categories of avatars that were given to the players. The first category gave players an ugly or attractive avatar. The test found that players given the attractive avatar were much more social and intimate in the conversation than those given the ugly avatar. The other test performed gave players a tall or a short avatar. It was seen that the participants given the taller avatar on average acted much more confidently and dominant in the conversation.

Yee’s experiment shows that the avatar we control in a virtual space directly effects the decisions we make in that space, whether we are conscious of it or not. But what does all this have to do with tabletop games. Well rather than donning a virtual avatar like in traditional video games, tabletop games have you donning an imaginary avatar. This imaginary avatar is unconstrained by the limits of a graphical engine or in some they don’t have any constraints at all. It can even be argued that tabletop games promote creating characters who are more than just numbers, but an imagined person. It is often encouraged that players create back stories and personalities for these characters to really make them feel real and interesting. In doing so we are essentially crafting a mask for ourselves to wear while we play. The better we know the mask, the more in line with the character our decisions are. I believe that this makes the impact of the imaginary avatar even greater than a digital one.
Picture of Colter
Recently I was playing a campaign in which my character got into a fight with an NPC because of my character’s race. My character beat up this aggressor, to which his friends scooped him up and were dragging him away. But being a hot headed lout, my character was not going to let the aggressor get off so easily. He pulled out his pistol and shot the racist punk square in the back, killing him. This ultimately got my character into a whole heap of trouble.  So why did I do it? I had already won the fight, and killing the guy only made my situation worse. It’s because I got immersed in the character and made the decision the character would have made. If it were me in the situation I would have handled it completely differently – I also wouldn’t have won the fight. But for that moment I wasn’t me, I was Colter Snead, an undead hoodlum with a chip on his shoulder.

Most people won’t intentionally get the party into trouble to stay in character, or make the decision I made in the previous paragraph. That is a rather extreme example, but more than likely you have experienced that’s same form of drive in one form or another. It doesn’t need to be big or grand, it can be almost unnoticeable. If you are playing a cocky and overconfident character, you may make more reckless choices without even noticing it.

As we play we have this clear image of who this character is, right down to their relationships and mannerisms.  Whether consciously or not, this image is going to affect our play in some way or another. This influence can even drive us to make suboptimal decisions, or even get the rest of the players into trouble.

Next week I will continue my analysis of the Proteus effect and look into how the characters we play at the table can influence the decisions we make in our day to day lives.

Thanks for reading,


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