Date of Award

Fall 2016

Access Type

Dissertation - Open Access

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Human Factors


Human Factors and Systems

Committee Chair

Dr. Shawn Doherty, Ph.D.

First Committee Member

Dr. Jason Kring, Ph.D.

Second Committee Member

Dr. Joseph Keebler, Ph.D.

Third Committee Member

Stephen Dedmon, J.D.


Race and racial identity is a frequently discussed topic in the media today. This topic is driven by what oftentimes amounts to culture clashes, and a system that claims impartiality yet is rampant with implicit bias demonstrating favorable treatment of one race over another. An example of this favoritism resides within video game design, where over 50% of player-controlled game characters are White, and less than 40% are Black (Leonard, 2007). Leonard also wrote that Black game characters are more likely to conform to Black stereotypes (e.g. play sports, or involved in gangs) than Whites (e.g. middle class citizen or unhygienic). Minimal research exists on understanding what information a video game character, or avatar, conveys to a game player, and whether this information is platform dependent or not. Furthermore, limited information exists on what the personification of agency really means within a digital environment. The purpose of this study was to examine the relationship that race may exert within video game play and, by extension, video game design in regards to the control of in-game avatars. Moreover, the goal is to determine if the Proteus effect, the central psychological theory under analysis, exists for console video game players in regards to race and skin color. Originating from the world of virtual reality, the Proteus effect emphasizes conformity to an avatar’s identity cues (Yee & Bailenson, 2007). Specifically, this study examines how the similarity or mismatch between in game avatars and the individual controlling them affects game-world behaviors.

Ninety male university students comprised of 3 different races (Middle Eastern, African American, and Caucasian American) played Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV) on PlayStation 3 with an assignment of either White (Michael) or Black (Franklin) game character condition. Data were collected on a behavioral metric with two primary categories: Crime against people and crimes against property. They also completed a personality inventory (HEXACO), and performed an implicit association task to further scientific exploration of the Proteus effect.

The results indicated that behavioral outcomes between the Middle-Eastern and Caucasian Americans contained significant differences, and this was regardless of their digital actor (DA) assignment. However, African American gamers had significant performance differences between the two DA conditions (White, Black); there were more crimes committed against in-game people and in-game property when playing as a White DA than when playing as a Black DA when compared against the other two groups. For the game play itself, no significant performance differences were observed between the White and Black DA conditions when collapsed across race conditions indicating that the platform selected offered equal opportunity for all gamers, and that one DA did not facilitate extra crimes above and beyond the other DA. Personality factors were controlled for through the use of the HEXACO model and demonstrated that the three faces did not significantly differ in terms of personality. However, when considering game play and crime specifically, individuals scoring high in the Honesty-Humility dimension of the personality inventory committed fewer crimes against property during their gameplay as indicated by a significant regression analysis.

The Proteus effect exists for console video games, and was observed within this study because a change in self representation via the DA caused an observable change in behavior. The African American participants experimentally depicted this in that they committed significantly less crimes while playing as a Black DA than the crimes they committed while playing as a White DA that did not occur for the other two races. The significance of this finding lies in the fact that this discovery bolsters understanding of DA-man relationships, and the nature of agency within digital environments. This study also demonstrates that DAs can alter gameplay, and the gaming community needs richer designs incorporating racial inclusivity within video games.