Archive for May, 2013

avatarsAvatars are all the rage these days. Facebook profile pics, World of Warcraft and EVE Online characters, Second Life and OpenSim personas—these are just a few examples of a growing phenomenon. We all seem to have some sort of digital representation of ourselves that we project into cyberspace—and we spend a fair amount of time designing and customizing them, getting their appearances just right.

Who can blame us, really? After all, they are us, the digital faces we present to the virtual world. That doesn’t mean they have to perfectly replicate our real-world identities, though. In fact, the beauty of designing an avatar is the ability to get creative, to choose exactly who we want to be, to build our ideal selves.

At first blush, it would appear that this is a one-way exchange: through the creative process, we affect the avatar, which we then use to interact with the virtual world. Certainly, with things like static photos and images, this is the case. However, with respect to a 3D digital persona that responds to our commands, it gets a little more complicated. In fact, as several researchers are discovering, situations that we experience virtually through our avatars can impact and even alter our reality.

vravatarPalo Alto research scientist Nick Yee dubbed this the Proteus Effect, after the Greek sea god Proteus, who could assume many different forms (and whose name lends itself to the adjective protean—changeable). He first described it in 2007 while studying how an avatar’s appearance and height affected the way people behaved in the virtual world. In his initial research, Yee provided study subjects with avatars that were attractive or unattractive, tall or short, and then watched them interact with a virtual stranger (controlled by one of Yee’s lab assistants). Here’s what Yee’s team discovered:

We found that participants who were given attractive avatars walked closer to and disclosed more personal information to the virtual stranger than participants given unattractive avatars. We found the same effect with avatar height. Participants in taller avatars (relative to the virtual stranger) negotiated more aggressively in a bargaining task than participants in shorter avatars.”

Yee’s work demonstrated clearly that an avatar’s appearance could change how someone acted within a virtual environment and interacted with its residents.

Okay, so what? It’s interesting, but what relevance does it have to the real world?

In 2009, Yee asked the same question: did changes in virtual-world behavior translate to physical reality? He revisited his 2007 study, adding another task: After concluding their virtual interaction, Yee had each participant create a personal profile on a mock dating site and then, from a group of nine possible matches, select the two s/he’d most like to get to know. Without fail, Yee says,

… we found that participants who had been given an attractive avatar in a virtual environment chose more attractive partners in the dating task than participants given unattractive avatars in the earlier task. This study showed that effects on people’s perceptions of their own attractiveness do seem to linger outside of the original virtual environment.”

The Proteus Effect has been credited with more than just creating more aggressive negotiators or making people feel better about themselves: weight loss, substance abuse treatment, environmental consciousness, perception of obstacles… all affected by people’s experiences through their avatars within virtual reality. According to Maria Korolov, founder and editor of the online publication Hypergrid Business—and who’s been studying virtual worlds since their inception—people who exercise within a virtual world…

… will exercise an hour more on average the next day in real life, because they think of themselves as an exercising-type person. It changes the way you think.”

Researchers at the University of Kansas Medical Center back this up. A weight loss study there found that people who lost weight either through virtual or face-to-face exercise programs were more effective at managing their weights if they took part in maintenance programs delivered through Second Life.

Regarding substance abuse, Preferred Family Healthcare, Inc., found that treatment outcomes for participants in their virtual programs were as good as or better than those for people who took part in real-life counseling. More significantly, fewer people dropped out of virtual treatment—vastly so: virtual programs saw a 90 percent completion rate, as opposed to 30-35 percent completion for programs at a traditional, physical facility.

3standford_virtual_human_interaction_lab_ym8phEnvironmental consciousness may seem like a stretch, but researchers at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that people who felled a massive, virtual sequoia used less paper in the real world than those who only imagined cutting down a tree.

And perhaps the most interesting example, a study at the University of Michigan showed that participants who saw that a backpack was attached to an avatar consistently overestimated the heights of virtual hills—but only if they’d created the avatar themselves. Participants assigned an avatar by the researchers were much more accurate in their estimations. Said S. Shyam Sundar, Distinguished Professor of Communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory, Penn State, who worked on the study,

You exert more of your agency through an avatar when you design it yourself. Your identity mixes in with the identity of that avatar and, as a result, your visual perception of the virtual environment is colored by the physical resources of your avatar… If your avatar is carrying a backpack, you feel like you are going to have trouble climbing that hill, but this only happens when you customize the avatar.”

Of course, there is a dark side to the Proteus Effect. A study co-written by Jorge Peña, assistant professor in the College of Communication at the University of Texas, Austin, Cornell University Professor Jeffrey T. Hancock, and graduate student Nicholas A. Merola (also at Austin), showed that avatars could be used to prime negative responses in users within a virtual world. In two separate studies, researchers randomly assigned participants dark- or white-cloaked avatars, or avatars wearing physician or Ku Klux Klan-like uniforms. They were also asked to write a story about a picture or play a video game on a virtual team and then come to consensus on dealing with infractions. Those in the dark cloaks or KKK robes consistently showed negative or anti-social behavior. What really causes concern, though, is that they were completely unaware that they’d been primed to do so. According to Peña,

By manipulating the appearance of the avatar, you can augment the probability of people thinking and behaving in predictable ways without raising suspicion. Thus, you can automatically make a virtual encounter more competitive or cooperative by simply changing the connotations of one’s avatar.”

Behavior modification through manipulation of appearance is nothing new: Traditional, face-to-face psychological experiments have shown that changes in dress can affect a person’s behavior or perception of themselves. That this also happens in the virtual world says something interesting about the human brain and its ability to distinguish reality from virtuality.

It should also give us pause. We’re rushing headlong into a brave, new virtual world, and it seems all but unstoppable. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. However, as we move forward, we would do well to proceed deliberately and with caution. Our history is rife with examples of decisions made ignorant of the potential outcome, and good intentions corrupted. If we are going to plunge into the virtual, we must consider the consequences—intended or otherwise—that our choices, and our actions, may beget.

You can read a summary of Nick Yee’s work here.

For a discussion of the University of Kansas study, check this link.

You can read about the Preferred Family Healthcare study here.

The Virtual Human Interaction lab study is here.

Check out the University of Michigan study here.

And you can find a discussion of the potential negative aspects of avatar manipulation here.