Previous studies have reported that stronger avatar identification and negative self-concept are associated with gaming disorder (GD). This study aimed to examine the value and significance of avatars based on firsthand accounts from regular and problematic gamers, and to identify any potential links between avatar-related experiences and excessive gaming.
An online survey of 993 adult gamers yielded 3,972 text responses. Qualitative analysis of 59,059 words extracted 10 categories of avatar-related perspectives.
Some problem and non-problem gamers employed sentimental language (e.g., ‘dear friend’, ‘like a child’, ‘part of my soul’) to refer to their avatar. However, most participants perceived avatars as a means of achieving in-game goals and enabling greater interactivity (e.g., socializing). When asked to reflect on hypothetically losing their avatar, participants generally anticipated feeling temporary frustration or annoyance due to lost time and effort invested into the avatar. Although some participants reported that their avatar ‘mattered’, avatars were often considered as superficial (‘just pixels’) and peripheral to the primary reinforcement of achieving in-game rewards and objectives. Some broader psychological and identity issues such as gender dysphoria, rather than ‘addiction’, were cited as motivating persistent avatar-related interactions and attachment.
Participants reported diverse views on the psychological value and function of avatars, but the relationship between avatars and problematic gaming or GD was largely unclear or inconsistent, and refuted by some participants. Future research with clinical samples may lead to a better understanding of player-avatar processes, including whether avatar-stimuli facilitate the development of maladaptive gaming habits, particularly among psychologically vulnerable players. Future investigations should be mindful of ‘overpathologizing’ avatar-related phenomena and recognize their important role in socializing, storytelling, and creative expression among gamers.