The concept self encompasses several different ideas and constructs, and is a subject of investigation for many disciplines including, social science, cognitive science, politics, philosophy and art, to name a few. Handbook of Self and Identity (Leary, et al.) describes five main constructs of self in its introduction. The first is use of self as synonymous for the person in everyday speech and creative media. Then there is the self as the personality, which includes the collection of character traits a person displays. Next there is subjective idea of the self that experiences the world, an entity to which things are happening. There is the self that is the the collection of beliefs a person has about themselves, and lastly the self that takes the executive action, driving a persons decisions.
One important idea to consider is that people construct an idea of their ideal self that is separate from their actual self, and the closer a person's perception of their actual self is to their ideal self, the more satisfaction they experience. (Reeves, ). There is another dimension that people experience, which is their ought self that dictates how a person believes the should act. In addition, when a person encounters an event that contradicts the idea of themselves they experience cognitive dissonance, which they ease using different strategies to resolve the mental conflict.
Games allow players to express themselves, create a representation of their ideal selves, or try out other selves by creating a relatively low stakes/ low consequence environment.
Self-portrait with Braid, Frida Khalo. 1941
People often want to play characters that posses highly desirable traits, such as high competence, autonomy, relatedness and social status. This is directly related to the idea that people have a vision of their ideal selves that they would like to achieve, and it is pleasurable to pretend to be such a self. As Przybylski reports in The Ideal Self at Play: The Appeal of Video Games That Let You Be All You Can Be, “We found that video games were most intrinsically motivating and had the greatest influence on emotions when players’ experiences of themselves during play were congruent with players’ conceptions of their ideal selves.” (Przybylski, et al. 2012). Designers should be aware that this type of experience is highly motivating and can use this fact strategically to add appeal to their game. They should also be aware of issues around cultural ideals of beauty, intelligence and power, and be careful of building these assumptions into their games.
Many players find it pleasurable to express their aesthetic tastes and preferences when given the opportunity. This is likely to do with the fact that many people spend a great deal of time cultivating their preferences in fashion, art, music, etc., and then want to show it off to people in interesting and creative ways. Where appropriate, designers should consider allowing players to customize aspects of their experience to provide greater ownership in the game.
People sometimes have their player characters act in ways that they would never act in their everyday lives. This can include acts such as consuming food they would not actually consume, wearing different clothing, taking on different personality traits, or even acting more transgressively like driving dangerously or enacting extreme violence on other characters. Sometimes the game gives justification for this action (you are a soldier at war, etc.), but at other times it is just pleasurable to behave in ways that subvert social expectation.
Przybylski, A. K., Weinstein, N., Murayama, K., Lynch, M. F., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). The Ideal Self at Play: The Appeal of Video Games That Let You Be All You Can Be. Psychological Science, 23(1), 69-76.