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On the Persuasive Power of Videogame avatars on Health-related behaviours

Clark, Oliver James (2019) On the Persuasive Power of Videogame avatars on Health-related behaviours. Doctoral thesis (PhD), Manchester Metropolitan University.

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Abstract

Background: Avatars are representations of the self in a virtual environment. They have been used to influence behaviour and may represent a promising avenue for designing interventions to promote health-related behaviour change. Aim: To determine the extent to which a representation of the self in a videogame influences health-related behaviours. Method: In addressing the aim of the thesis, a mixed methods approach was adopted. This started with a systematic review investigating the effectiveness of various attempts at health persuasion using avatar appearance manipulation. Next, a qualitative study investigating gamers’ avatar design preferences and experiences of playing an exergame with an idealised, self-similar avatar was conducted. The quantitative phase of the thesis involved three quantitative studies investigating the existence, ambivalence, and variance of stereotypes associated with plus-sized and athletic physiques over three modalities (text, image, video); and a replication-extension of an exergame-based Proteus Effect study involving larger-bodied and ‘average’ avatars. In this latter study, a bespoke exergame was developed that used the stimuli developed in the previous studies as avatars. Results: The systematic review (Chapter 4) revealed that a small number of studies had investigated using avatars to promote health related behaviour, and a common finding was that using larger-bodied (compared with athletic) avatars in exergames resulted in reduced physical-activity. Since this was explained in terms of stereotypical behaviours, such as laziness, being assimilated into the players’ behaviour, the qualitative study (Chapter 5) explored participants’ accounts of being restricted to an athletic avatar and found that this was not always a positive experience. To explore this further, Chapter 6 investigated the stereotype structures of plus-sized and athletic bodies were both found to suggest ambivalence. Text descriptions of prototypical ‘athletic’ groups (Chapter 6), and images of virtual humans with athletic bodies (Chapter 7) were rated as more competent, more arrogant, and less friendly compared with larger-bodied examples. Negative stereotypes, such as laziness, were reflected in evaluations of larger bodied representations, but so was the potentially positive trait of affability. In Chapter 8, larger-bodied exemplars that were animated with counter-stereotypical information (running on the spot) were rated less negatively than those that were stationary. When the exemplars were used as avatars, there was no evidence for behaviour change as a function of avatar-physique in the experimental replication study (Chapter 9). Conclusion: By using methods derived from existing social psychological theories, it is possible to create representations of larger bodies that are evaluated more positively. Further, there may be negative consequences to relying on athletic-bodied avatars to encourage exercise. Although there was no strong evidence that participants behaviour was affected by the type of avatar used, an argument can be made for allowing users to explore a broader range of physiques and presenting larger-bodied characters positively as competent agents.

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