Avatars for Clinical Assessment: Digital Renditions of the Self as Innovative Tools for Assessment in Mental Health Treatment

Avatars for Clinical Assessment: Digital Renditions of the Self as Innovative Tools for Assessment in Mental Health Treatment

Stefano Triberti (University of Milan, Italy), Valeria Sebri (University of Milan, Italy), Lucrezia Savioni (University of Milan, Italy), Alessandra Gorini (University of Milan, Italy) and Gabriella Pravettoni (University of Milan, Italy)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 29
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-9412-3.ch013
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Avatars are an important feature of digital environments. Existing both in social networks and webchats (usually as static images) and in single-player and online video games (as dynamic characters, often humanoid), avatars are meant to represent users' action and communication within digital environments. Research has shown that, when they are customized by users, avatars are not created “randomly,” rather they maintain some kind of relationship with users' actual self-representation and identity. However, more recent studies showed that users may have multiple digital representations: the same person could create multiple avatars depending on which facet of the self is primed by an experimental manipulation, or on which aims they have to pursue in the given virtual environments (e.g., to seduce, to play, to work). With this background, this contribution explores the possibility to use customized avatars within psychological assessment, as adjunctive assessment tools useful to get information on patients' self-representation(s) and communicative intentions.
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An avatar is typically an image that represents the self in the virtual world. Generally used in the context of social networks and video games, it could be a static or dynamic figure that embodies actions/communications between users in a virtual world (Triberti, Durosini, Aschieri, Villani, & Riva, 2017). Actually, “avatar” is a word used to identify a number of heterogeneous entities in the digital world; Triberti and Argenton (2013) have proposed a general classification:

  • When relational, avatars are used exclusively to identify the authorship of messages by a human user, and to communicate a simple meaning about oneself (e.g., what I like, who I am, which ideas or values I adhere to); for example, here the word avatar is used to refer to static pictures (faces, objects, symbols… even a written description, such as in first-generation MUDs) in forums, web chats, or social networks;

  • When agentive, avatars are used to act and move within a two-dimensional or three-dimensional digital environment: for example, these (often) humanoid dynamic figures are used to walk, fight, or explore in video games;

  • Finally, hybrid avatars perform both the functions; for example, avatars in Virtual Worlds and online video games (e.g., MMORPGs) are both used to communicate meaning and promote recognition by others, especially when personalized in their appearance, and to act and move (the examples reported in this contribution will be mainly referred to this kind of avatars, which appear to be the more rich in terms of customization options and communication possibilities).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Social Identity: The individual’s sense of who they are basing on social group memberships.

Avatar: Digital entity meant to represent users’ action and/or communication within digital environments.

Self-Presentation: Parts of the individual’s identity (personality traits, aims and objectives, etc.) that the individual may use to induce a positive image of themselves within their interlocutors’ mind, in a process called impression management. Self-presentation efforts can be accepted or rebuffed by others, thanks to the dialogical feedback loop that characterize every communicative exchange.

Proteus Effect: Tendency for people to be affected in their behavior by their digital representations, such as avatars, dating site profiles and social networking personas.

Virtual Worlds: Permanent virtual environments where multiple users can interact with each other thanks to the use of avatars.

Psychological Assessment: The process of testing which uses different techniques to arrive at hypotheses on individuals’ mental state and behavior, possibly with the intention to change them in the future.

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