Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

When I Die, I Feel Small: Electronic Game Characters and the Social Self

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

When I Die, I Feel Small: Electronic Game Characters and the Social Self

Article excerpt

Although eclipsed by the rise of behaviorism in the middle of the century, theoretical perspectives on social orientations toward personality and the development of the self are undergoing a resurgence (Davies, 1997; Grodin and Lindlof, 1996; Rosenberg, 1988; Schwartz, 1990; Thornton and Moore, 1993). Indeed, a great deal of the work in communication effects research since the 1960s incorporates some aspect of social learning theory, and much of it includes a reference to the development of self-concept. Soukup (1993) suggests that nearly the entire effects tradition in mass communication research presumes that communication media influence our self-concept.

The purpose of this paper is to explore children's use of mediated characters as role models for the development of their self-concept and personality. Using the perspective of the "social self," we examine data on children's use of video and computer games and perceptions of electronic game characters as comparisons to their own developing personalities and other individual characteristics.

The Social Self

One hundred years ago, the phenomenon of the social self was a central concern for psychologists and social psychologists laying foundations for communication theory (Cooley, 1918; James, 1890/1948; Mead, 1934). Although there are a number of different interpretations of the term social self, we follow the tradition begun by Baldwin (1897) and define the social self as the perception of oneself that is developed through interaction with others. In the present study, we assume that the social self is formed as people make comparisons between themselves and others along a number of physical and personality dimensions, and that these comparisons result in the formulation of an ideal self reflecting an individual's notion of who he or she would like to be. This ideal self, in turn, becomes a major comparison point as well.

These ideas are not new to the theoretical literature in social psychology. Baldwin (1897) described a theory of the "socius" (or social self) that makes all aspects of the self and personality a social and cultural product. Baldwin suggested that personality is formed primarily through imitation of others.

In a related vein, Mead (1934) suggested that the individual becomes conscious of others in the same manner in which he becomes conscious of himself--through communication. Mead described the process of identification of the other with the self, accomplished through taking the role of the other. Both Cooley (1918) and Mead (1934) suggested that it is through communication that people learn to take the roles of others, developing abilities of sympathy and empathy, as well as self-concepts. In the past, people learned about themselves and others through direct experience and participation in events, but in contemporary society, both Cooley and Mead suggested, the individual is able to enter into the roles of distant others through the communication media. It is through taking the role of the other that an individual becomes integrated into society--able to understand the nature of oneself and of how one's actions affect others.

Reviewing this literature, Rosenberg (1988) suggested that perceptions of self and others are stored as potential components of the self. These components include traits such as physical characteristics, personality, attitudes and competencies, and the emotional experiences of our interactions with others. Rosenberg suggested that these stored characteristics (both traits and affective experiences) are made manifest when one describes oneself or others. In this view, the perceived difference between self and other becomes clear when one is asked to describe both, for one relies on similar dimensions in retrieving the stored information. In this manner, the characteristics of self and other become either very similar or polar opposites.

Similarly, Higgins (1987) suggested that we have specific standards and ideas regarding character traits, and that we are motivated to reach a condition in which our self-concept matches our personal standards. …

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