Disentangling how the brain regards avatars versus real individuals may help explain why some people spend large chunks of their life playing immersive online games, says Kristina Caudle, a social neuroscientist at Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire, who led the study along with her adviser William Kelley.
“It’s hard to imagine from an outsider’s perspective what might drive someone to spend 30 hours a week immersed in a completely imaginary world,” she says. More than 11 million people play World of Warcraft each month.
Innocent or intelligent
Previously, researchers have observed that people easily adopt the persona of their virtual selves, for instance, by acting more aggressively when their avatars are tall than when they are short, irrespective of an individual’s height in the real world.
To probe what brain activity might underlie people’s virtual behaviour, Caudle’s team convinced 15 World of Warcraft players in their twenties – 14 men and 1 woman – who play the game an average of 23 hours a week, to drag themselves away from their computers and spend some time having their brains scanned using functional MRI.
While in the scanner, Caudle asked them to rate how well various adjectives such as innocent, competent, jealous and intelligent described themselves, their avatars, their best friend in the real world and their World of Warcraft guild leader.
When Caudle’s looked for brain areas that were more active when volunteers thought about themselves and their avatars compared with real and virtual others, two regions stood out: the medial prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex. That makes sense as prior research has linked the medial prefrontal cortex to self-reflection and judgement.
Interestingly, however, there was “next to no difference” in the activity in these regions when people thought of themselves and of their avatar, says Caudle, who presented the results at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.