The Ideal Self at Play in videogames (Przybylski et al., 2012)

First contact about this article was last August [1,2] where news was going about videogames’ ability to explore and reach your ideal self. At that time, the article in question was not available and it was until December that it finally got published. However, the timing could not be worse as I was in hibernation. After 9 months (of procrastination), I have finally reviewed this revealing article.


Video games constitute a popular form of entertainment that allows millions of people to adopt virtual identities. In our research, we explored the idea that the appeal of games is due in part to their ability to provide players with novel experiences that let them “try on” ideal aspects of their selves that might not find expression in everyday life. We found that video games were most intrinsically motivating and had the greatest influence on emotions when players’ experiences of themselves during play were congruent with players’ conceptions of their ideal selves. Additionally, we found that high levels of immersion in gaming environments, as well as large discrepancies between players’ actual-self and ideal-self characteristics, magnified the link between intrinsic motivation and the experience of ideal-self characteristics during play.

I once fancied into personality psychology and its application to videogames, my first honours project was a correlational study of the Big five personality between the gaming self and the physical self. A sample of 20 volunteers was not telling me much.

The idea of convergence and discrepancies of one’s multiple selves came from William James. The rationale follows that one has an actual self and an ideal self. This actual self is what we know about ourselves, such as our predilections, preferences, and personality and the ideal self is what we want to have. An analogy is how you much you actually weigh and the ideal weight you’d like to have. How much close are between the two selves have shown to be linked to self-esteem. A big divergence is not going to help your self-esteem or following the weight analogy, you won’t be happy that you are still too heavy.

The authors argued that virtual environments, such as videogames, can provide opportunities not found in the physical world to express certain aspects of their self. This extends to attaining one’s ideal self, although the examples they provided refers to ideal masculine identities for boys’ play in violent videogames, idealized or rather heroic roles in fantasy narratives.

With these arguments in hand, the authors argued that videogames can engage their “gaming-self” closer to their ideal self and such convergence would result in greater intrinsic motivation. They also hypothesized that the convergence between the gaming-self and ideal-self in relation to intrinsic motivation would be moderated the convergence of one’s actual-self and ideal-self. The prediction is that if their actual-self is highly discrepant from the ideal-self, the convergence for the gaming-self would be of greater importance for intrinsic motivation. Another moderating variable would be the role of immersion.

Study 1

Study 1 is a within-subject experiment where participants played three different videogames and rated their self after each play.

Participants: 144 undergraduates (48 males, 96 females), average age is 19.83 (SD = 1.19).


Gaming self, ideal self: The Ten-item Personality Inventory, it is answered on a 7-point agreement Likert scale. Each item consists of a pair of adjectives (e.g. “dependable, self-disciplined”) related to one of the Big Five personality factors: neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.

The personality inventory was completed multiple times with different instructions.

  • Ideal self: “…you would ideally like to have…”
  • Gaming self: “…when you were playing [game name], you saw yourself as someone…”

The correlations between the ideal-self and gaming-self for each videogame are computed and served as a “score” (from -1 to +1) for their analyses. So each participant would have three self-convergence scores.

They also computed discrepancy scores in how far apart the ideal-self and gaming-self for each videogame.

Intrinsic motivation: 4 items questionnaire on a 5-point quantity scale. It is adapted from from the Intrinsic Motivation Inventory.

Post-play affect: The Positive and Negative Affect Schedule-expanded form (PANAS-X). It consists of 20-item adjectives answered on a 5-point quantity scale. Half of the items relate to either positive affect (e.g. “excited”) or negative affect (e.g. “upset”).

Videogames used: Bookworm, Peggle and Bejeweled. These videogames were selected because they have simple controls, but are challenging and diverse in terms of the abilities required. Bookworm challenges lexical abilities, Peggle needs visual and spatial skills and Bewjeweled challenges pattern matching skills. Play time for each videogame is 10 minutes. Participants play all videogames in random order to counter-balanced practice effects.


They explained the statistical procedures through hierarchical linear modeling since they had their participants go through three videogames in a single lab session, which is unlike the more common single videogame experiments. If you are a stats stickler, go read the article. I vaguely understand it and I can’t explain in simpler terms.

Their results for intrinsic motivation revealed that videogames that promoted participants’ self-convergence score were more intrinsically motivated. Post-play affect results revealed that videogames that promoted participants’ self-convergence score showed greater positive affect and lesser negative affect. This sounds great for an experimental design.

They followed up their analyses with self-discrepancy scores and found quite the predicted opposite direction. Videogames that demoted self-convergence, but increases self-discrepancy score, participants were less intrinsically motivated. Post-play affect revealed that greater self-discrepancy score showed lower positive affect only.

Study 2

Study 2 is the survey-version of study 1 where users of online videogame communities were asked to fill out questionnaires.

Participants: 979 users from a popular online community that focuses on gaming and internet culture, I don’t which community. Average age is 23.18, SD = 4.84. The age range is wider at 18-48 years since it is the Internet after all. The authors took the usual precautions of online surveys, such as IP filtering to prevent duplicates and questionnaire stuffing.


Participants were asked to reflect their gaming experiences during the past 4 weeks before completing any of the measures.

Most of the measures used in study 2 are mostly the same from study 1: Intrinsic motivation and PANAS-X are identical. They used a larger personality inventory (30 items) and had the participants complete them three times with different instructions in each (gaming self, ideal self and actual self: “you see yourself generally…”).

Immersion: They used the 9-item Presence subscale from the Player Experience of Need Satisfaction Scale. The 9-item subscale is on a 5-point quantity scale.

Videogames named: Participants named their favoured and played videogames. The most popular is Team-based competition games like Team Fortress 2 (24%), followed by MMOs like World of Warcraft (19%), action and adventures (e.g. Zelda, 14%), strategy (e.g. Starcraft 2, 12%), RPG (e.g. Final Fantasy or Mass Effect, 12%) and others (e.g. Guitar Hero, The Sims, etc., 19%).


Regressional analyses supported study 1’s results in that higher self-convergence scores led to greater intrinsic motivation. Post-play affect was also supported in that self-convergence scores led to greater positive affect and lesser negative affect. They followed-up with another analysis by controlling for the mean level of the self-convergence score and found that the link for negative affect remained significant, but positive affect was not significant.

As for discrepancy scores, they found the same thing: higher self-discrepancy scores led to lesser intrinsic motivation. Post-play affect was different from study 1 in that self-discrepancy scores led to lesser positive affect and greater negative affect.

Participants also rated their actual-self and the authors analyzed its role as a moderator. In addition to the game-self with ideal-self convergence score, they also computed the actual-self with ideal-self convergence score to see if the former had a higher impact on intrinsic motivation if the latter was low (i.e. there was a discrepancy between one’s actual self and ideal self). Their regressional analysis revealed that among individuals with low actual-ideal self-convergence scores, their intrinsic motivation increases as their game-ideal self-convergences increases as well. In contrast, among individuals with high actual-ideal self-convergence, the relationship was not significant.

As for immersion’s role as moderator between game-ideal self-convergence and intrinsic motivation, having a highly immersive experience improved intrinsic motivation among individuals with high game-ideal self-convergence scores. In contrast, a poorly immersive experience lowered intrinsic motivation for the same group. Among individuals with higher actual-ideal and game-ideal self-discrepancy scores, a poorly immersive experience lowered intrinsic motivation.


The authors’ hypothesis that videogames allow players to experience their ideal self within its virtual worlds was supported in both the laboratory and online survey settings. This benefit of ideal and gaming self congruence in videogames is expressed by higher intrinsic motivation and positive feelings. The relationship is stronger among individuals who felt a wide discrepancy between their actual (i.e. real life) self and their ideal self making videogames attractive as a welcoming social space because it allowed them to achieve greater congruence of self than the outside world.

The authors noted this as well and wondered whether such attraction can be construed as compensatory or constructive and what long-term effects are entailed.

The study investigated a specific aspect of the self that is through the Big Five personality dimensions. However, other aspects of identity are not explored yet. Rereading the introduction section, videogames was proposed to help expand and promote the development of one’s self because of its mutable context and the ease to adopt identities, idealize identities. I must question this proposition in light one’s development of their ethnic and sexual identities.

Videogame characters are not a very diverse population (Williams et al., 2009) where the majority of narrative-driven videogame portray their protagonists as white, heterosexual adult males. It is quite a large discrepancy for many minority gamers that some might find it difficult to relate, or experience less fun with someone with whom they have little in common. Even in videogames that allows players to construct an identity, such as the Fallout series, how effective would it be for the characters’ reaction to someone who is a woman, a Chinese man, or a black woman. Would the affirmation of other virtual characters of one’s gender and ethnicity benefit the development of one’s self? As I ponder, a lack of feedback would tell the player that certain parts of their customization that the world is colourblind or perhaps more insidiously, they are invisible and do not matter.

On a side note, I must ask why there are so few teenager or child videogame characters when a large segment of gamers are teenagers and especially why there are kids playing FPS annoying the adults. Using this study’s results, is it reasonable to say that children’s videogame are less effective in promoting of one’s development of their self or perhaps something is missing that more older-oriented videogames has?

Some argue that the majority of a gaming experience should be in the online world and avatar customization, but I see two complications. The first complication is the limits of avatar creation despite its broadness, it is constrained by game designers and certain options may be exclusive to one’s race or gender (see Pace et al., 2008) that could be restrictive element of one’s gaming self. The second complication is the social world of gaming where an expression of one’s identity outside the perceived majority (i.e. white male heterosexual) can lead to focused and perhaps uncomfortable probing of said identity, perhaps leading to discrepancies between their gaming-self and ideal-self. The common stories are female players being courted, harassed or worse by other male players, or female players have defensive self-statements in their profile (e.g. “Yes, I am girl, do you have problem?”). Drawing from Weinstein et al. (2012), this complication extends to homosexuals and bisexuals where homophobic curses are thrown around within a macho social environment, more so in certain communities than others. Anyone would be discouraged from deviating from the perceived norm or they might face harsh harassments from others.

In the end, the technology of videogames itself does not matter, but how producers, distributors and consumers create the videogame would support the range of identities, from the external of sexual, ethnic and self-image to the internal of personality characteristics.

Przybylski, A. K., Weinstein, N., Murayama, K., Lynch, M. F., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). The ideal self at play: The appeal of video games that let you be all you can be. Psychological Science , 23 (1), 69-76. DOI: 10.1177/0956797611418676

3 thoughts on “The Ideal Self at Play in videogames (Przybylski et al., 2012)

  1. Very interesting. I actually took a class at my university about video games, and one of the issues that came up was the representation of, or lack of, ethnic and gender groups. Even in online games, where online identities can be customized, ethnic people other than caucasians tend to stray towards what they believe is ideal (there is a study done with African American children where they let them choose between a white and a black baby doll. The former was deemed by children as ‘ideal’ and chosen the majority of the time).

  2. I have read your article and found it intriguing. I am planning on going to graduate school for marketing and am interested in the psychological aspect of the consumer as it pertains to games. Would you be able to send me some more of your work as an entry point into this field? It would be greatly appreciated.

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