Avatar Authenticity – It’s Better AND Worse Than You Think

27 Sep


Author's Avatar in Sony Playstation Home (I think I have more hair than that guy)

Let’s see… if the Massively Multiplayer Online game (MMO) that I am playing has well over 30% female avatars, but I know that 85% of the users are male…  Wait a minute… Half of those chicks have d**ks!

Statistics like this (see The Daedalus Gateway website by Nick Yee) initially seem to reinforce our suspicions of online environments, where predators lurk and false personas abound.  However, MMOs like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and other console titles continue to grow their online following as these other worlds provide beautiful graphics and unique, immersive gaming experiences.   Other virtual worlds, like Second Life and Sony Playstation Home, are more socially oriented and attract higher percentages of female participation, but activities like mini-games, dancing, exotic locations, and in-game entertainment still provide the framework to facilitate the interactions.  Still other applications are emerging in the business world, including IBM’s Virtual Collaboration, and Microsoft’s Avatar Kinect, which avoid the heavy bandwidth requirements and associated choppiness of video conferencing displays.  Central to each, though, is a 3D character that is controlled and customized by the user, called an avatar, that represents the user within the virtual world.

Such virtual situations are ripe for abuse and deception, so I was surprised to learn that the majority of people actually try to represent themselves honestly within these environments.  In a review article by Christian Jarrett, references are cited confirming that behaviors such as personal space, eye contact, sexual mores, and racism are exhibited in the virtual world, just as they are in real life.   And on The Deadalus Gateway website, researcher Nick Yee supports this conclusion and presents data showing that most respondents claim that their online avatar behaves similarly to themselves in real life, with older players and women behaving most consistently between worlds. 

There is also evidence that players prefer avatars that resemble themselves, including a study by Nowak and Rauh at the University of Connecticut who conclude that players prefer avatars that match their real world bodies in terms of gender, hair color, race, and perhaps even sexual orientation and hobbies.  Also, in an informal poll conducted by one user on the Sony Playstation Home forums, only about 20% of respondents considered the appearance of their avatar to be very different from reality.  About 56% considered their avatars to accurately resemble themselves, within their artistic abilities and system limitations, while the majority of the remaining respondents still indicated a desire to present themselves accurately, but did not want to expend the effort trying to get it just right.  Yee summarizes his findings by stating that introverted people tend to create avatars that are projections of themselves, albeit sometimes idealized, while extroverted people are more likely to experiment with their identities online.

Also, according to Yee, a full 80% of users play online with at least one person that they know in real life.  Therefore, any persistent deception would ultimately be exposed as most time spent online is either with people known to you in real life, or known by you for an extended period of time through meaningful online interactions.

Oddly, Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University have performed experiments showing that people can people take on real-life characteristics of their virtual avatars.  Participants who were given tall avatars in a virtual world were more likely to negotiate aggressively in a subsequent real-world bargaining task.  Furthermore, people assigned more attractive avatars in the virtual world were found to select more attractive partners in a later dating task.  The authors called this phenomenon The Proteus Effect, after the Greek god that was able to change forms at will. 

Jarrett’s review article also cites evidence of The Proteus Effect, and speculates that it can be used therapeutically.  He cites studies in which online avatar communication patterns between people with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome are little or no different from similar communications between “neurotypical” people.  Virtual worlds are also very popular with people with disabilities, allowing them to experience activities in a highly personalized manner that they otherwise would not be able to experience in real life.  He goes on to state that remote counseling and treatment of disorders like phobias can also benefit from this technology, encouraging fellow psychologists to pursue these applications further.

The Guild Cast

Despite the general profession of honesty online, it is blatantly clear that the obesity epidemic that plagues western societies has not afflicted the virtual world, so some level of embellishment is afoot.  Therefore, caution is recommended when venturing online, just as in the real world, and this is particularly true if you are female.  This link to a video by Sanii Mandred is a light-hearted, but disturbing, look at the type of harassment that your female avatar may experience.  Also, this seemingly unavoidable persistence of boys behaving badly is also satirized in the web series The Guild, and the hilarious music video entitled “Do You Wanna Date My Avatar”.

Finally, in the documentary Life 2.0, director Jason Spingarn-Koff explores the good and bad aspects of human interactions in Second Life, such as marriages, affairs, entrepreneurship, and addictions, including one anonymous adult male who portrays himself online as a little girl… hmmm.  Ultimately, it seems, people present a façade of their choosing, whether it is online or in the real world.

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