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How People Express Their Real Selves in Virtual Worlds

People's actions in fantasy games still express their real personality.

Key points

  • Research suggests that motivation for achievement in a virtual game is related to low conscientiousness.
  • However, a study of online behavior found that highly conscientious players prefer non-combat related achievements requiring patience.
  • Less conscientious players tend to be more careless and enjoy more violent in-game activities.

Massively multiplayer online role-playing games, such as World of Warcraft, in which players create fantasy characters to explore a virtual world are incredibly popular. Research has examined why people play such games, and there has been debate about how a person’s behaviour in such games reflects their offline personality.

A virtual world provides enormous freedom for people to reinvent themselves and explore identities that they cannot express in “real” life, and some have argued that there could be a clean break between someone’s offline personality and how they behave virtually (Yee et al., 2011). However, several studies have found connections between people’s personality traits and aspects of their game play.

One study (Graham & Gosling, 2013) found the apparently surprising result that people motivated by the desire for achievement in an online game were low in conscientiousness, even though desire for achievement is associated with high conscientiousness in offline life. The authors suggested that this might mean that certain traits are expressed differently online than offline. However, another study (Yee et al., 2011) correlating behavioural data with players’ personality traits, suggested that conscientiousness was associated with more non-combat related achievements. A closer look at what people actually do in these games can provide a more nuanced understanding of how personality is expressed in virtual worlds.

Source: GeorgeB2/Pixabay

Personality Traits and Motivations to Play

Graham and Gosling’s (2013) study examined how personality traits were associated with various motives to play among World of Warcraft players. Social motives were associated with higher extraversion and agreeableness, both of which are interpersonal traits. Additionally, leadership motivation was positively associated with conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness to experience, and negatively correlated with agreeableness. This is consistent with would-be leaders being assertive, domineering, and ambitious.

On the other hand, achievement motivation was associated with high extraversion and low conscientiousness and agreeableness. This was somewhat unexpected as conscientiousness in real life is normally associated with setting goals and working to achieve them. It’s worth noting that the measure of achievement motivation used in their study focuses particularly on gaining power, accumulating in-game symbols of wealth or status, and challenging and competing with others (Yee, 2006). Hence, the concept of achievement measured here focuses particularly on self-aggrandisement rather than, say, self-development. This seems particularly relevant to how conscientiousness is expressed in these games, as we shall see.

People's Actions Reflect Their Personality Traits

World of Warcraft maintains detailed logs of players’ in-game activities, which makes it an ideal source of behavioural data. In particular, a wide range of “achievements” are awarded for completing various activities, some of which are combat-related, while others are not.

Yee et al.’s (2001) study made use of this data in a survey of over 1,000 players who completed a measure of their Big Five personality traits of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and neuroticism, which were correlated with logs of their in-game behaviour. Many aspects of players’ in-game behaviour reflected their personality traits in expected ways. For example, more extraverted players engaged in more frequent group activities such as dungeon achievement that require collaborative play while introverted players engaged in more solo activities such as questing.

Highly agreeableness players gave out more virtual hugs and preferred non-combat activities such as exploration, while less agreeable players tended to kill more player characters, have more character deaths, and engage in more competitive activities. Players high in openness to experience, which is associated with more cognitive complexity and unconventionality, tended to have more characters, occupy more realms, and spend more time exploring and engaging in non-combat activities. Players low in openness to experience tended to play in a more traditional combat-oriented way, spending more time in dungeons and raids.

Of particular interest here was that high conscientiousness was associated with more achievements in fishing, cooking, “world events,” and professional development, and fewer achievements in dungeons and raiding. The authors note that the kinds of achievements that conscientious players seem to prefer require patience and self-discipline, such as collecting unique recipes and visiting unique fishing locations (which may require prolonged periods of time between catches), while world events require participating in various seasonal and ongoing events in many distinct locations in the virtual world.

On the other hand, players low in conscientiousness were more likely to die by falling from high places, which the authors suggested reflected carelessness on their part. In real life, high conscientiousness is associated with self-control and self-discipline, while low conscientiousness is associated with impulsivity and carelessness. Hence, these results seem to suggest that, in some respects, conscientiousness is expressed similarly online and in real life.

The Role of Impulsivity

Differences in impulsivity might also help explain why players low in conscientiousness engage in more combat-oriented activities. Research has found that criminals high in impulsivity were more likely to get away with certain types of crimes (specifically predatory activities such as theft and violence rather than consensual activities such as smuggling) (Aharoni & Kiehl, 2013), and that criminals who were lower in self-control tended to have higher earnings (Morselli & Tremblay, 2004). Obviously, raiding dungeons in an online game is not a crime, but it is possible that impulsive traits might also facilitate such in-game activities.

Relatedly, a study in which participants were asked to create a character for use in an online fantasy role-playing game whose moral alignment could be a choice of good, neutral, or evil, found that participants high in agreeableness and conscientiousness were more likely to choose good rather than evil characters, and vice versa for those low in these traits (Ewell et al., 2016). Hence, players high in conscientiousness as well as agreeableness might be less attracted to “violent” virtual activities like dungeon raiding because they perceive these as less morally acceptable.

Fantasy Selves and Real Selves Are Not Far Apart

Returning to the study by Graham and Gosling (2013), it seems likely that players with higher "achievement" motivation in that study tended to be less conscientious because the measure used emphasised more aggressive combat-oriented activities rather than gentler ones involving self-discipline and self-development. Therefore, the association between "achievement" motivation and low conscientiousness becomes more consistent with how this trait is expressed in real life. Based on their findings, Yee et al. (2011) note that even though people might have the freedom to become whoever they want to be in a virtual game, there remains a thread of continuity between a person’s real life personality and how they behave even when playing fantasy characters, such as elves or gnomes.

As I noted in a previous post, there is evidence that people’s inner fantasy lives are constrained to an extent by their own psychological dispositions and sensitivities and that engaging in taboo behaviours even in settings that aren’t real can be unsettling for many people. I suggested that at some level people feel that their fantasy selves magically represent their real selves, and this may make people reluctant to deviate too far from their real selves even in fantasy settings. This seems to also apply to people's behavior in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft.


Aharoni, E., & Kiehl, K. A. (2013). Evading Justice: Quantifying Criminal Success in Incarcerated Psychopathic Offenders. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 40(6), 629–645.

Ewell, P. J., Guadagno, R. E., Jones, M., & Dunn, R. A. (2016). Good Person or Bad Character? Personality Predictors of Morality and Ethics in Avatar Selection for Video Game Play. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 19(7), 435–440.

Graham, L. T., & Gosling, S. D. (2013). Personality Profiles Associated with Different Motivations for Playing World of Warcraft. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(3), 189–193.

Morselli, C., & Tremblay, P. (2004). Criminal Achievement, Offender Networks and the Benefits of Low Self-Control. Criminology, 42(3), 773–804.

Yee, N. (2006). Motivations for play in online games. Cyberpsychology & Behavior: The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society, 9(6), 772–775.

Yee, N., Ducheneaut, N., Nelson, L., & Likarish, P. (2011). Introverted elves & conscientious gnomes. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 753–762.