Gaming to Improve Self-Image: Clinical Research

Gaming to Improve Self-Image: Clinical Research

This series of articles explores the current clinical research that exists around the benefits that playing video games can have for wellbeing. Wherever we can, we have linked to a free full version of the publication, and otherwise have referred to its abstract.


Today we’re looking at gaming to improve self-image – how and why is it that games can make us feel good about ourselves?


1. Games Can Help You Understand Yourself

Suler, John R. (2002). Identity management in cyberspace. Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, 4 (4), 455-459. [Link]


This fascinating article explores the way that people are able to reinvent themselves online and in games. You can change your name, appearance and behaviour – emphasise your offline self, or discover a new identity entirely. This isn’t an investigative study as such, more of a psychological essay on how you relate to your avatar.


Some of the topics it discusses include:


  1. Level of Dissociation and Integration


  • This section looks at how we can compartmentalise our life roles online.
  • For example, you can use the avatar of a barbarian to emphasise your personal strength and courage.
  • Alternatively, you can choose to hide roles and characteristics at any time.
  • This ability enables us to inspect our own various roles in a simple way, enhancing our understanding of self (based on the concept of Role Theory).
  • Adequately achieving this harmonious combination of self understanding is important for mental health.

Role theory in social psychology speaks about how a successful life is an efficient juggling of the various tasks and positions we accumulate and develop from childhood through adulthood.


  1. Positive and Negative Valence
  • The subject of this section is at addressing cognitive dissonance.
  • We all have views of what is “good” and “bad” in a person – but we may become confused and troubled when we see both of these in ourselves and are unable to see the grey in between.
  • The online space can be a way of exploring and expressing these aspects and understanding the importance of balance.
  • It is also a way of overcoming personal boundaries, to find new friendships and integration in a social circle.
  • It is unfortunate the article doesn’t go too in detail about why people who are very insecure with poor coping skills can be aggressive online.


  1. Level of Fantasy or Reality
  • Here we go into how using a video game avatar can be useful in discovery of self.
  • Games represent a space to explore different behaviours, with the safety net of the avatar being separate – not a true representation of self.
  • This freedom allows the player to experiment with those characteristics that may be subconscious desires, and to explore what feels right.
  • They often discover new things about their own personality, and identity.


  1. Level of Conscious Awareness and Control
  • Much of these processes may happen at a conscious level.
  • However many of them may be entirely subconscious, not known to the player/internet user.


  1. The Media Chosen

We express our identity in the clothes we wear, in our body language, through the careers and hobbies we pursue. We can think of these things as the media through which we communicate who we are.


  • Online we not only choose the aesthetics of how we present ourselves, but the logistics. You may choose to use Twitter if you are minimal with speech. Tumblr if you enjoy being more verbose.
  • The same can be said for our game choices and how we utilise the options given to us.
  • Think of YouTubers – there is a conscious decision to use webcam, or not. This is a way of portraying self.


Reflecting on all of these factors together, we can begin to build a picture of our “online self”. Through this, we can explore our own psyche in a truly intimate way.


2. Games Can Improve Self-Esteem

Bessiere, K, Fleming Seay, F & Kiesler, S; The Ideal Elf: Identity Exploration in World of Warcraft. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 2007: vol. 10(4), pp. 530-535. [Link]


This study again looked at WoW players. They investigated how each player felt about themselves, including their personality, physical attributes, and character traits. They also asked about the participant’s ideal self. Who would they like to be? How would that person look and behave?


The results showed that players often made avatars in the image of their ideal self. Particularly for players with low psychological wellbeing, who rated themselves much lower than their avatar. This act allows the player to embrace their positive traits, those which they value. They can experience what it is like to be their ideal self, and the ability to do this is useful in reducing cognitive dissonance, and transferring confidence to our offline selves.


Przybylski AK, Weinstein N, Murayama K, Lynch MF, Ryan RM, The ideal self at play: the appeal of video games that let you be all you can be. Psychol Sci. 2012 Jan 1;23(1):69-76 [Link]

This team’s results give a better understanding of the implications from that previous study. They looked at the impact of creating an ideal self in your avatar. They found that games were more motivating and had a bigger impact on positive emotions when the player could personify their ideal self.


3. Games Can Improve Your Moral Compass

Greitemeyer T, Effects of playing video games on perceptions of one’s humanity. J Soc Psychol. 2013 Jul-Aug;153(4):499-514 [Link]


There has been debate for decades on whether video games make people violent. (Spoiler alert: they don’t).


This team looked at this topic with relation to not actual aggressive outcomes, but the player’s perceptions of themselves as a human being. Were they a good person, or a bad person? They applied self-perception theory to their analysis and performed two studies.


They found that playing a prosocial game – that is, one where you help others – led to perceptions of self as a “good” person. The inverse was also true. Playing violent games led the player to feel more acutely their negative humanity traits.