Immersion and Handicapping

Project Abstract

In cognitive and social psychology, the construct of flow has been defined as "a state of effortless concentration so deep that individuals lose their sense of time, of themselves, of their problems; an optimal experience." (Kahneman, 2011; p 40). Csikzentmihalyi (1975, 1990) is often credited with establishing a set of nine fundamental criterion for assessing flow, including a loss of self-reflection, a merging of action and awareness, and distorted time perception. However, debate has continued among investigators about the necessary or sufficient components of flow (e.g., sensory, cognitive, and emotional processes). Research has also identified a host of similarities between flow and the concept of “immersion,” or “the sense of being wholly absorbed in an activity to the complete loss of awareness of the real world” (Cairns, Cox, Day, Martin, & Perryman, 2013 p. 1070). This suggests immersion might be a part of a broader 'flow continuum' (Michailidis, Balaguer-Ballester, He, 2018; Soutter & Hitchens, 2016).

Soutter and Hitchens (2016) investigated the relationships between immersion/flow, character customization/identification, and life satisfaction. According to their work, individuals with higher life satisfaction tend to create and identify with characters similar to themselves. Conversely, their results also implied that individuals with lower life satisfaction tend to create and identify with characters dissimilar to themselves. Soutter and Hitchens (2016) also found a positive relationship between customization effort and flow experience. This finding is interesting, as more time spent customizing a character was associated with people having a more immersive experience in the game, but the degree to which they customized their character to look like themselves did not.

Importantly, the idea that individuals with lower life satisfaction customize avatars that are dissimilar to themselves could be considered ego protection, or “the motivation to defend oneself against negative self-views.” (Giacomin & Jordan, 2020; p 4783). In contrast, ego enhancement can be thought of as the motivation to promote or enhance positive self-views of oneself (Alicke & Sedikides, 2009). Tice (1991) investigated the relationship between self-handicapping (i.e., a lower level of practice effort before an upcoming evaluation) and self-reported social self-esteem. Self-esteem and life satisfaction are often found to be highly correlated constructs (e.g., Hong, Liu, Lin & Lian, 2020; Uram & Skalski, 2022). Tice (1990; 1991) posits that persons with low self-esteem likely self-handicap as a means of ego protection (e.g., "I did not study for a test and failed. I failed because I did not study."), while persons with high self-esteem likely self-handicap as a means of ego enhancement (e.g., "I did not study for a test and succeeded. I succeeded because I am an intelligent person."). The relationship between self-esteem and self-handicapping has been well-studied in a variety of contexts (e.g., Alesi, Rappo, and Pepi, 2012; Ferrari, 1991; Prapavessis & Grove, 1996). Consequently, there is strong evidence suggesting the relationship between self-esteem and self-handicapping is likely generalizable across different social situations.

With regards to character customization, Tice (1991) suggest individuals with low levels of self-reported social self-esteem have no reason to self-handicap (or engage in ego protection) in a condition where success is seen as a meaningful accomplishment. However, Soutter and Hitchens (2016) imply that individuals with low life-satisfaction will engage in ego protection regardless of the condition (i.e., regardless of whether they see success or failure as meaningful events). The proposed study is interested in investigating whether or not individuals with low self-esteem would customize characters that look similar to themselves.

The proposed study will build on prior research by investigating factors involved in the experience of flow and immersion in video games. Particularly, this study will further examine the relationship between character customization effort, avatar similarity, ego protection, and immersion. It is predicted that avatar similarity will be related both to overall self-esteem and life-satisfaction and to expectations related to game difficulty and success.

Funding Type

Research Grant

Academic College

College of Humanities and Fine Arts




Masters in General Experimental Psychology




Patrick Cushen, PhD

Academic College

College of Humanities and Fine Arts

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