Playing the Online Hero, Offline


An interesting study was issued recently by psychologists at the University of Illinois, suggesting that the profile pictures or “avatars” that people choose to use in online gaming may subconsciously influence how they see themselves, and how they treat other people.  Researchers found that when subjects thought of themselves as Superman, they were less likely to harm someone else when given an opportunity to do so (in a minor way) in real life.  Conversely, when the subjects identified with the evil Lord Voldemort from “Harry Potter”, they were far more likely to take advantage of a real-life opportunity to harm someone else – again, even if only in a minor way.

Obviously there are potential implications from this study with respect to violent video games, and these results will be pored over by experts in developmental psychology. However rather than focusing on the negative conclusions one might reasonably draw from such findings, it might be more useful to look at them as another example of science proving a human trait which, instinctively, we all share.  Humans want to know about other humans to look up to, and to model themselves after, even if realistically they only are able to achieve that mirroring in the smallest of ways.

We should first clarify what this study is NOT. These findings are not some sort of justification to go out on a make-believe crusade and behave like an idiot, thereby running the risk of injuring oneself or others.  Sadly, in this day and age, such a caveat is in fact necessary.  Yet putting aside those with some sort of street vigilante death wish, there is something anciently, fundamentally human about the practice of talking about heroes, real or imagined, and then looking to those heroes as examples.

In ancient cultures, stories were of course told about the exploits of the gods, but legends were also told about humans who did extraordinary things.  The touchstones of Western literature, The Iliad and The Odyssey, are accounts of the deeds and exploits of such men and women, designed to make those who heard them appreciate the differences between good and evil, right and wrong.  In the process, authors such as Homer hoped that the audience would be inspired by the pursuit of good, and shun the embrace of evil.  Perhaps the average Greek would never get to slay ferocious beasts like Hercules in these kinds of stories or in the art they inspired, but they could discern the better aspects of his character and behaviour, and try to imitate his example in their own lives, while simultaneously avoiding the excesses of his personal pitfalls.

Fast-forward to Ancient Rome, and we have the real-life cult of the gladiators.  In ancient graffiti in the Coliseum and throughout the Roman Empire, we see evidence of people arguing heatedly over which of the arena performers was the greatest.  Although they were not gods or demi-gods themselves, these men who fought one another in public garnered huge followings as people projected themselves onto both their actual exploits on the sands, as well as the legends being told about them, which circulated like court gossip.  It allowed the average Roman citizen to imagine that he could fight a wild beast or a savage enemy himself, if put to the test, even if he led a reasonably uninteresting life in some provincial capital.

Today, to those who think they are too sophisticated to fall into such practices, one would suggest they look about the next time they go out in public – or for that matter, cast an accusing eye into the mirror.  See that fellow wearing the jersey with Alexander Ovechkin or Peyton Manning’s name and number emblazoned on it?  Is he really any different from that ancestor inspired by tales of adventure and heroism to go out and try to do more than he thought himself capable of?

Even those staying up late to watch this year’s Winter Olympics from Russia on television are, at least sociologically, the descendants of those who engaged in such celebrations of other people’s achievements at the original games back in Ancient Greece.  Most of those watching the Olympics have absolutely no hope whatsoever of competing at an elite level in any of the sports on screen.  Yet as human beings they still feel inspired, at least on a subconscious level, by these athletes.  They continue watching and cheering, whether for reasons of health, patriotism, or in admiration of human ability and determination.  And perhaps for some of them, the positive examples of these men and women take hold, even if only in a small way.

The conclusions to be drawn from this research study are too many to treat in a single blog post, and I am certainly not qualified to even attempt to make them all.  Yet these results clearly do speak to a fundamental human need for heroism.  We want – need – to feel that we can achieve much more than others or perhaps we ourselves think we are capable of.  The Greeks learned this about themselves from Odysseus’ experiences, as that character came to understand himself, just as we also can do from Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Harry Potter, lo these thousands of years later.


124 thoughts on “Playing the Online Hero, Offline

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  2. It’s a great theory on its surface (just look at my avatar) but if you scratch the paint only a little, you’ll find a fundamental flaw in the emulating heroes tack, especially these days.

    I love the idea of a superhero, I’ve just never seen the practice of one. I’ve scanned a lot of movies, looking for them. What I’ve found across the board is two opposing characters, a hero and a villain, both doing massive amounts of damage and harm to pretty much everything and everybody they encounter, and the only delineation between the two is the motive with which the damage is wrought. And the color of their bodysuit, of course.

    It never escapes my attention just how many “bad guys” a hero gets to kill without judgement, how many structures and cities he is allowed to raze without indictment, how many bystander’s lives he is given a free pass to ruin simply because he’s “stopping evil” or “saving the world.” Audiences sneer when the villain utters the age-old sinister line, “You’ve got to sacrifice a few pawns in order to realize your vision,” but somehow they miss it when the hero does the very same thing.

    And I think I know why. For people feeling disempowered by life, neutered by their boss, and hamstrung by their wife or girlfriend, large scale destruction feels pretty good. Superheroes throwing a baddie through a building is the cinematographic version of screaming like a maniac and putting one’s fist through the drywall in the bathroom. It’s wish fulfillment. The hero gets to beat someone’s ass and Joe Suburbia gets to enjoy a cathartic social orgasm from that.

    But I’d like to hear what the psychologists say about people feeding themselves a constant diet of destruction-as-solution. After all, aren’t our higher cognitive powers supposed to be making us the geniuses in the animal kingdom?


    • What you’re describing is what has happened to the modern superhero genre, and a comparison of the Christopher Reeve and Henry Cavill versions of Superman shows that. Reeve’s character always tried to avoid people getting injured, whereas the modern version doesn’t seem to care. This is a blog post for another day, of course, but you raise good points.


      • Yes, precisely what I meant by “these days,” although I didn’t drive home that point very well.

        The second you mentioned Superman, those are the very two guys that came to mind. What a stark contrast. Imbd actually describes Superman 3 this way: “Synthetic kryptonite laced with tobacco tar splits Superman in two: good Clark Kent and bad Man of Steel.” Oh, the irony.

        Now I’m imagining the looks on a 1970s audience’s faces if we showed them Cavill’s performance. They’d wet themselves.


      • Finally, the perfect acoustical mirror to the deep levels of sociological disappointment and artistic ineptitude in this film (if your ears start bleeding, take a break):

        Rejected Robocop Theme Song


  3. Two thoughts came to mind.

    First, where are the women? When you mentioned Harry Potter, what about Hermione bailing him out time after time. What about Joan of Arc saving France? And Lewis and Clark would have starved to death in the mountains without Sacajawea leading them to the Pacific Ocean.

    Second, by hero, do you mean someone with extraordinary abilities in an ordinary world? Someone who is smarter, or gifted? Would you mean someone who has the courage and strength to organize a modern nursing service in place of the medieval medical establishment, or find a way to treat polio when no one else could, or examine the effects of radium and the implications for sub-molecular science. Or, perhaps you were thinking of those who start the entire horror genre one dreary winter on Lake Geneva, or bring the symphony to its highest art form, or paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling in a manner that mere mortals cannot?

    Your article was interesting, but, as you said, you only scratched the surface.

    Thank you, Silent


  4. So true. I have a weird obsession with Batman. have for many years. I am drawn to the darkness he came from. the symbolism in original graphic novels is remarkable. we all need something to believe in. May we never know the hell of Gotham.


  5. There’s something to be said for this study. I’m not sure if you play video games often, but I dabble in Diablo 3 from time to time, and I generally take choosing a video game avatar pretty personally. So does my boyfriend and his brother.
    We all want to be individual. That’s why we spend so much of our in-game time getting rare looking armor and dying it different colors. It’s a way to set ourselves apart from the pack. This is so much easier to do in a video game, where everyone has the access to the same resources, than in reality.


    • And perhaps that’s a lesson to take from here, in the end. People matter more than things, and how you treat people particularly. So I’m happy to try to stay in the hero column, even if I screw up a lot. Thanks for reading!


  6. “I’m Iron Man.” Actually, more like titanium, since I had my knee replaced. I’m working at it one joint at a time. Seriously though, I think it is only natural to identify with the characters in the movies or in games or with athletes in sports. Now, whether a person chooses to be the bad guy or the good guy, is purely arbitrary. So, I guess it’s time to choose. “Avengers Assemble!”


  7. This does explain a -LOT- and is an insight that I appreciate. I really like this. Also, being a Marvel fan I enjoy the pictures (DC is pretty awesome, don’t get me wrong!). As soon as I saw the information, I knew that it was too true. Thank you for sharing this!


  8. This does explain a -LOT- and is an insight that I appreciate. I really like this. Also, being a Marvel fan I enjoy the pictures (DC is pretty awesome, don’t get me wrong!). As soon as I saw the information, I knew that it was too true. Thank you for sharing this!


  9. Reblogged this on perk2911 and commented:
    Some truth of it its case to case basis why we look on to heroes we basically
    Emulate the positive things and relate the struggles of heroes for example superman confusion when got crisis.
    Choosing his call of duty or personal happiness to choose Lois lane. To be superman movies and get the point.


  10. Pingback: heroes all | inkblots & blood clots

  11. Interesting post – the unexplored side of our personalities exist of course in all of us, and we do need to acknowledge our own shadow side in order to avoid being unconsciously subsumed by it, simply because we don’t want to own it – but, having said that, there is something inevitably obvious about what masks we anonymously hide behind out there in virtual. I’m interested in how, on various forums, things very quickly seem to descend to people who don’t know each other slagging each other off for no apparent reason at all. I know that is not the same as consciously chosen avatars, but some people seem to find the interest satisfies some desire to be deeply aggressive and unpleasant and vent in a way which I’m pretty sure (I hope) they wouldn’t get up to ‘in real’ with strangers

    I think we all do need heroes (male and female) to identify with an aspire to, whether these are real people (eg someone like Mandela, who touched some global nerve of aspiration) or the fantasy figure who engages in quests and is victorious, bringing back the fruits of their victory to enrich their kingdom, in many classic fairy tales


  12. In every grade school, every teacher has asked of his students, “If you could have a power, what would it be” Strength, the ability to have X ray vision, invisible, speed or what ever?” Now, we call it avatar.


  13. very well work done…keep going…i liked it…its nice…as am a new blogger in this world and i wrote just 1 blog ( and unable to find my viewer as like you, can u please help me by reading my 1st blog what wrong with my writing…is really something wrong with my writing or am just expecting too early…your helpful comments will really inspire me… and please follow me…


    • I think there’s a lot to take away from this study. If you pick someone virtuous to play-act online, you’re going to subtly make at least a few choices differently than you would if you chose to play someone more selfish or lacking in self-control. Thanks for reading!


  14. I totally agree! I believe we should take the good and leave the bad in everyone. We can use anyone as a role model as long as we know right from wrong. But, morality the hard part. That’s why God is my hero and Jesus Christ is my example. Not to push creationism, but to agree that everyone should try to emulate their hero, and that there is good and evil in all humans. Finding good is easier with heroes, rather than villains, but even Hitler was a good family man (not flame bait, just exaggerating my point).

    Ultimately, perception is reality! Visualization of avatars enforces this perception. People choose the avatar they identify with most, so the research results are no surprise. Great post and insight!


    • Well exactly one of the points I was trying to make, thank you. If you – even subconsciously – associate yourself with someone who tries to do good things, you’re probably more likely to behave that way. Thanks for reading!


  15. This is an interesting blog post! And one that reminds me of a thought I had many years ago, when I was thinking of becoming a psychologist (those plans have changed…I am now trying to become an author.)

    When I was younger (and even now, sometimes), I did story RPG forums and chats. Everyone made up their own original characters and interacted based on a setting, background or situation. And I realized something during that process (as a 15/16 year old, the idea was a lot more profound seeming than it is now that I’m 27, but 11 to 12 years can make a big difference on how you see the world). How your characters behave and interact can impact how you behave in the real world.

    I noticed that with myself and others in the same forum. It is pretty much common sense, but it is amazing how many people overlook the possible therapeutic aspects of RPG, online gaming and even writing stories.


    • Trying to pick a positive role model in real life – a favorite relative, a good boss or teacher – is something we all do. I think in play time it’s just as good a practice. Who really, at the end of the day, wants to be evil and unloved? Thanks for reading.


  16. Pingback: Story-Telling, Online RPG and the Impact on Your Behavior | theauthorwhoknows

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  18. Thank you for the thought provoking post William. I would like to point readers to the profound work of the late Joseph Campbell, a scholar of Mythology and Psychology, and also a student of Carl Jung. His book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ points to this archetype which has time and time again raised itself in many cultures over the ages. And it is not a black and white journey that he paints; there is little emphasis on right and wrong but on a journey. I have given Campbells’ work my interpretation in my post here


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