This feature first appeared in Hyper issue #217, in November 2011.

Written by Patrick Stafford

Gamers are obsessed with choice.
Whether it’s over story, weapons or character appearance – more than ever before players want absolute, total control.

As game worlds are continually enhanced with more lifelike characters, artwork and sheer possibilities, gamers increasingly scorn linear titles and embrace sandbox platforms to dictate more decisions on their own.
But while gamers might yearn for open worlds to complete quests they could never achieve in reality, they are unaware of a trend that psychologists and developers are now observing with great interest – that with every choice, these gamers are actually revealing the inner workings of their psychology.
Experts are beginning to believe that every move a gamer makes, down to the tiniest detail, from choosing a silenced pistol over a machine gun in Splinter Cell to using Mammoth Tanks over Ghosts in StarCraft, reveals something about that person’s personality.
Irrational Games creative director Ken Levine says he’s of the opinion that “the choices we make do reflect us”.
“When I play a game like Civilisation, which allows me a lot of choices, I try and play a more peaceful game. I think that does reflect my personality, and it allows me to express my personality in a very simulated way. I’m the kind of guy that it’s difficult to make an enemy out of, but if you do, then watch out.”

“That definitely comes through in the game.”

Texas A&M psychology professor Christopher Ferguson, says games such asAlpha Protocol, Red Dead Redemption and even Baldur’s Gate, which allow the player an entire palette of choices, can reveal what situations and pressures make that player tick.

“I think even in a game like Thief, you can play all the way through without killing anyone, and that tells you something about their psychological make-up.”

“It tells you why they’re specifically interested in that challenge, and tells you something about their personality, for example, if they have the ability to keep persisting on something no matter how monotonous a task.”

Ferguson also says these types of choices reveal whether a person may have a loud, vibrant personality, as opposed to a more introverted nature.

With games such as LA Noire now placing such a high emphasis on independent decision making to advance the plot, being able to express and capture personality through those decisions becomes a meaningful exercise.

According to a study undertaken by the Palo Alto Research Centre, gamers actually maintain their personality while playing. These researchers studied over 1,000 players, who completed personality tests and were then documented while playing World of Warcraft.

Those gamers who scored highly for extroversion and emotional stability were more likely to have higher more friends and dungeon achievements with others, while those introverted players completed fewer social quests.

“Individuals who score higher on Openness have more characters. They also have characters on more realms, game servers or parallel worlds. And they spend more of their playtime exploring the world,” the study found.

The stereotype of the lonely hermit who uses video games to escape and become someone entirely different may not be true, it seems. If you’re a shy, quiet person, then you’re going to be shy and quiet in World of Warcraft as well. 

“It is easy to imagine that virtual worlds allows us to become whatever we want to be, but our findings show that our personalities remain even when we don virtual bodies.”

In one sense, this is nothing new, as RPGs have allowed gamers to personalise their characters for years. But with choices over story and character becoming more prominent, it’s important to underline the ramifications of this type of research.

If the way we play games actually tells us what type of a person we are, not only could games be designed to absorb personality information, they could actually react to it. Developers could use this to build better games.

Eidos Montreal senior game designer Francois Lapikas believes we may be on the brink of opening up entirely new markets.

“I can see a future in which games can become so immersive that you could essentially have people play “what if” scenarios and learn how they would really react to situations such as war, death and other life challenges that supposedly are true tests of character.”

 “Depending on how strong the link between games and personality is, the possibilities could be limitless. You could have games designed to make you feel good about yourself, others designed to help you get rid of some characters flaws or help you strengthen positive characteristics such as empathy or leadership.”

“Some games could be geared towards marital problems, sexual dysfunctions. We could essentially see whole new markets emerge that we currently know nothing about.”

Charles Handler runs the psychometric testing firm Rocket Hire, which has screened employees for companies including Procter & Gamble and the United States Navy. He’s a believer that eventually, games can become a type of personality test that could help job seekers.

“I believe that games can be, and should be, on the very beginning of that journey. I think gaming, real gaming, can take it to the next level. It allows people to not only be engaged but entertained. They get something back, and it becomes a more meaningful experience.”

Gamers believe they enter games to relax, unwind and become characters they never could in reality, butdevelopers say they actually create worlds so users will be able to express themselves and the way they think.

Francois Lapikas says open games like the original Deus Ex –one of the most influential PC games in part for the sometimes overwhelming amount of choices – is a catalyst for finding out just how a person can act when under pressure.

“I believe that by default people will act out their own personality, yes. Give them a game without too much context and they will make decisions according to their personal beliefs and personality.”

But while deciding between saving little sisters in BioShock, or killing innocent bystanders in Red Dead Redemption, provide a black and white moral choice, they’re ultimately meaningless. They don’t account for tiny differences in personality that could be expressed in hundreds of different ways.

Rather, developers and psychologists say you need to look at a collection of smaller, more insignificant choices.

Even in games that are criticised for their linear progression, such as Modern Warfare or Dead Space, there are still hundreds to be made. Which weapons will you use? How will you attack this enemy first? Do you prefer pistols or knives?

James Portnow, a game designer who has worked on titles from Modern Warfare to Farmville, and now heads up his own creative consultancy Rainmaker Games, says individual choices like these can show whether a user is more aggressive, calm or even indecisive.

“That moment in Modern Warfare when the nuke goes off, and it’s the last minute of your character’s life. You’re able to move around, and look at your surroundings. There are plenty of possibilities there for expression of a particular personality.”

“You still have the choice of what to do with that last minute. Are you going to move around, or just stay there? I think that can say a lotabout a person and how they think.”

“So we do think about the player’s ability to express themselves, and do try and create moments where a player can make choices that reflect their personality.”

IO Interactive art director Tore Blystad agrees with this approach and says it’s important that players have that type of empowerment in expression.

“It is very important to us. We believe that the player is expressing himself through his actions in the game, and if you provide him with a number of interesting options his play style will become a far more personal experience.”

But perhaps the bigger question is this - if games are able to reveal more characteristics of players, such as loneliness, introversion or even depression, what if games are able to teach us something about ourselves we had never realised before?

Portnow says he has experienced this very phenomenon playing World of Tanks. 

“I couldn’t bring myself to hop into a Nazi tank,” he says. “I thought to myself, that’s really interesting, that I’m revolting to a feeling that is so deep-seated within me.”

“In MMOs, I either play the creative explorer, and often I play a cleric or healer that helps out the party. And now that I think about it, and how I’ve performed those roles and how I react, pretty much every game I’ve played has told me something about myself.”

If multiplayer games like Gears of War and Modern Warfare have the ability to collect likely data on personalities, games could even target towards people with certain personality traits.

Storylines could change based on the personality of the person playing, weapons could be different, while whole entire narrative choices could be presented to you simply based on your personality type, and you might be more likely to respond.

But there’s one massive caveat. The fact you login to Battlefield and slaughter soldiers doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a raving lunatic, and just because you choose to avoid killing someone in Splinter Cell doesn’t mean you’re a harmless butterfly.

Tore Blystad says this applies to him. He explains while he tries to act the “nice does not take that much provocation from the game before I will break down and kill civilians in my way if I’m in a hurry.”

However, he also openly admits this reflects how he reacts to frustrations in his own personal life. 

“I guess that’s a result of my temper. I’m easily provoked and in a game I can vent it out violently, while in real life I have to restrain myself.”

Ken Levine agrees, saying that just because someone harvests little sisters in BioShock doesn’t mean they’re expressing some bloodthirsty desire for revenge on all humanity.

“I think there is a fantasy space where people can go to darker places, I think it’s good, I think it’s healthy. I don’t believe who commit that sort of violence in games are sociopaths.”

However, Jamie Madigan, another professor and author of the blog “The Psychology of Video Games”, says the concept of personality applies here too.  He argues that while the majority of people who choose violent, “immoral” options are only acting out a fantasy, they are often still acting out of a very real, strong emotional base.

“You occasionally hear theories about catharsis. The player is getting it out of their system, and so on. Except the research doesn’t play that out.”

“Research doesn’t show that when you’re playing these games, thatthey make you feel better because you expel those urges. No, these games don’t make anyone less aggressive, or less sexually aroused afterwards.”

But maybe more importantly than harnessing data to create new storylines or recruitment programs, Portnow asks whether developers ever exploit certain personality traits to make games more meaningful.

There is constant debate over whether games are considered “art”, but conversations usually negate the notion that art has something meaningful to say. Perhaps harnessing a players’ personality, and then manipulating that to expose weaknesses or traits they don’t even know about, could soon become a crucial element of gameplay.

“Fate of the World is a great example. It’s a game about how humanity is going to survive until 2120, andwhile playing I had this horrific moment where given the resources I had, and the fairly localised nature of the problems, I essentially had to give up on Africa altogether.”

“That moment stayed with me, and struck me, and really taught me something about myself. I like to think of myself as someone who is less concerned about the pragmatic, and more concerned with the bigger idea of getting something done.”

“These games taught me I’m not quite there yet.”