Gavin Lew, M.A., Managing Director
Jayson Webb, Ph.D., Director
Martin Ho, M.A., Senior User Experience Specialist
The number of online poker sites and players has exploded exponentially since Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event. The aptly-named Moneymaker took home $2.5 million after buying into a $39 online poker tournament. Today, during peak hours, over 50,000 real-money players can be found playing at any given time on top online poker sites such as Full Tilt Poker, Poker Stars, and Party Poker.
Although the courts have handed down judgments that define poker as a game of chance, many players firmly believe that poker is a game of skill. They also believe the ability to "read" your opponent is a key determinant of winning and losing. If this is indeed true, then how can poker players "read" opponents when playing online? Online play does not provide the same opportunities as physical seats at poker table in a casino, where you can observe the body language of other players, your opponent's facial expression, or the way opponents handle chips when they are sitting idle or betting. Instead, online poker players must rely on more subtle clues. There are several articles that describe online poker as a game "characterized by a complete lack of visual tells," . These online strategies often focus on the analysis of opponents' betting patterns.
As psychologists and professionals in usability and user interface design we were curious if additional behavioral cues can be gathered from a poker site's user interface (UI) aside from how players use the betting buttons. (We've also been known to play poker every now and then). Is the rest of the UI purely for aesthetics or can players obtain a "read" on opponents based on how they use the various features on the site's UI? We would like to suggest that other UI elements can certainly help players obtain poker tells. In particular, avatars could be a valuable source of information for players. For online poker companies, this might be an opportunity to enhance the features and functions of avatars during game play.
In the gaming world, avatars are used as physical representations in the virtual world. Avatars provide an extra layer of entertainment for gamers and allow gamers to embellish their gaming identities. It is not uncommon for individuals to create avatars that draw on some of their real-life physical traits.
However, gamers sometime create alter-egos or represent themselves in ways that are otherwise not possible in real life. In a recent paper by Hussain and Griffiths, 57% of gamers were found to have engaged in gender swapping . Over two-thirds of females engaging in gender swapping when creating avatars. Reasons for gender swapping included different abilities afforded by choosing an opposite-gendered avatar. The study also noted that females believed they would encounter less online harassment when assuming a male avatar. Overall, the authors' major conclusion was that choosing an opposite-gender avatar may affect the gamer's style of play and interaction with other gamers.
Similar to other gaming environments, many online poker sites use avatars to represent the player. On sites like Full Tilt Poker, players can choose from a variety of avatars, from different humans, animals, and even fictional or inanimate objects.
However, the motives for selecting an avatar in online poker games may be quite different from other online games. Do players select an avatar that suits their poker style (e.g., selecting an ATM machine because the player is a loose player) or do players select avatars to induce opponents to make incorrect assumptions about the player and their style of play that equate to positive gains, whether it be play chips or real money? From a strategic vantage point, a poker player may select a specific type of avatar to suggest a loose style of play when, in fact, the player's style of play is tight and aggressive.
In addition to providing basic avatars that indicate when a player has joined an online game, some poker sites also allow players to change their avatar's emotional expression. We've been known to successfully bluff a fold or induce raises simply by changing the avatar's emotion.
Although there is no data or study to date on online poker avatar selection, we think there is valuable information to be gained here. Although online poker sites do not allow players to read opponents' physical composure, their online avatars provide an extra layer of information that players can use to inform (or manipulate) their play. We might even say it is easier for players to bluff in online poker than in physical tournaments at casinos because in-person bluffing requires much better control over body language (reactive control). In contrast, online avatars only display emotion changes when the player consciously decides to broadcast these emotions.
This raises the distinct possibility that your opponent might be smiling because of a bluff or because s/he has a made hand. You might wonder if your opponent changed avatar emotions on previous hands and if so, was that done as a bluff or was it done to induce a call? Among players who usually change avatar emotions frequently, the very act of not changing an emotion can also be considered a distracting ploy that their competitors must analyze.
While poker avatars may have been traditionally thought of as a fun UI element, they also introduce simulated tells and bluffs to the game. Moreover, avatars add richness to the online poker experience in ways that can't be done in a casino (unless you decide to wear costumes at your local poker tournament).
Can avatars be developed even further to enhance the user experience? We believe the answer is yes. There is a clear opportunity for poker game developers to provide additional avatar features and functions that will appeal to both the novice and seasoned players. For example, future avatar enhancements we hope to see include:
These enhancements would appeal to the competitive nature of poker players, and we believe that sites that offer these kinds of features will attract both novice and seasoned players. For the novice player, a more interactive avatar simply adds to the overall experience. While recreational poker players play to win, there's also a "fun" component to playing. For the seasoned player, any additional layer of information that can be provided in a virtual environment helps narrow the gap between online poker and poker in a casino.
Since poker is a game of decision-making with incomplete information, poker players look for information at all angles. Players still believe there is simply no way to gain as much information on online poker compared to physically sitting at a table. For online poker, the avatar is but one UI element that can help narrow this information gap. In our view, this is a win-win situation for both game developers and online poker players.
Good luck and see you at the tables!
Badger, S. & Knight, J. "Winner's guide to online poker"
Hussain, Z. & Griffiths, M. D. (2008). Gender swapping and socializing in cyberspace: An exploratory study. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 11(1), 47-53.
As one of the company's founders, Gavin has been instrumental in shaping User Centric as the premier firm in the industry. Gavin's 15 years of experience in corporate and academic environments has given him a strong foundation in user-centered design and evaluation. In addition to managing the company, he holds particular interest in mobile technology, healthcare, and global research projects. Prior to co-founding User Centric, Gavin was president of an internet start-up, principal at a web development company, a member of Ameritech's Human Factors group, and Director at another user experience research consulting firm. He is a frequent presenter at national conferences and the inventor of several patents.
Interesting Facts: Gavin is both a Star Wars and Lego enthusiast, which is easy to tell if you go into his office.
Qualifications: MA in Experimental Psychology from Loyola University
Jayson's main focus is on utilizing a combination of qualitative and quantitative data to improve website designs. He also specializes in data analysis, including inferential statistics (ANOVA, regression) and exploratory analyses (cluster analysis, pca, etc). Before joining the User Centric team, Jayson was the cofounder/managing director of Quintus Design and confounder/VP of Services of Lextant, both user experience companies. His role with User Centric is to help launch and support our remote testing product - LEOtrace. Jayson has presented at conferences including the eMetrics Summit and ITEC conference.
Interesting Facts: Jayson spends his spare time playing online chess, bowling with his twin 11-year old daughters, and coaching girl's softball.
Qualifications: PhD in Experimental Psychology with minors in Quantitative Methods and Human Factors
Martin's interests lie in both UI design and user research within the retail and consumer goods industries. He brings much experience in interviewing techniques to the arena of user research, along with extensive training and consulting experience in research methodology and quantitative analysis. Since joining the team, Martin has conducted user research on consumer electronics, retail and financial web applications, and e-commerce websites. His recent work has concentrated around IA, UI design, and rapid prototyping for large scale web applications. Martin is a member of many professional organizations, including APA, ACM CHI, and IXDA.
Interesting Facts: Martin is an avid photographer and enjoys processing photos in the digital darkroom. He enjoys playing poker (the probability game, not the gambling game).
Qualifications: BA in Psychology and Sociology from the University of Virginia, MA in Clinical Psychology from the University of Denver