As avatars, do we ‘act our age’?

In a recent post, Ming considered whether people create avatars to look like their ‘real selves’ or ‘ideal forms’ of themselves. My own thesis was concerned with age discrimination, and after reading Ming’s post, it struck me that I have never encountered an ‘old’ avatar in Second Life. Statistics suggest that the average age of a Second Life user is early to mid-30’s. If we were to judge by appearances alone, we might be led to believe that the ‘people behind the avatars’ were all in their 20s. It got me wondering: Is it possible to make your avatar look older? Do people tend to create avatars who reflect their real age? And if not, why not?

Recent research (September 2008) asked 78 participants whether their avatar’s age reflected their real age, with results indicating the following:

17% appears much younger than me
24% appears slightly younger than me
46% more or less the same age
8% appears slightly older than me
1% appears much older than me
1% my avatar is not one where age is apparent

Evidence on social stereotyping indicates that people are classified into in-groups and out-groups according to whether they are perceived to ‘belong’ to a group on the basis of certain characteristics. The social psychology literature suggests that when we first meet a person in real life, we tend to categorise them according to salient characteristics (e.g. age, gender, etc) and these categorisations can influence our judgements and the way we behave towards them. Does the same apply to our Second Life behaviour? If an avatar appeared to be more mature in age, would they be treated differently by a group of younger-looking avatars?

This could lead to some very complex social situations: we could, for example, find that a 20 year old decides to create an older looking avatar, and faces ‘second life age discrimination’ from a group of avatars who, in real life, are in their 30’s.

An interview with Harr Ireton, a man whose avatar has been created to reflect his real life appearance (see picture here), acknowledged that he had “run into several situations where someone wanted to put me down or shut me out for having grey hair”. Although Harr also noted that such situations were rare, they are worth consideration.

I believe that Second Life is an excellent educational resource, with plenty of potential to be incorporated into the Occupational Psychology course. However, I do think this issue needs to be considered. Will students entering Second Life get the impression that all other students on the course are younger than them? Although this shouldn’t matter, will it cause more mature students to create avatars to ‘fit in’ with the ‘in-group’, so that their own avatar appears younger than their actual age?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but it seems to me that this is an area worthy of future research.

Kelly Barklamb, 25th March 2009.

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  1. This blog’s great!! Thanks :).

  2. David

     /  March 27, 2009

    Speaking as the oldest member of BDRA, I’d say that my (limited) experience of meeting avatars is entirely of ones younger than me! In fact, I don’t think I was offered the option of a bent, wizened wrinkly when I created my own avatar. I suppose the niche market for such avatars would be small, particularly in California.

    Although I entered Second Life as a man about 40 years younger, my emotions on meeting a svelte young female avatar were those of a youth: should I say Hello or not? I didn’t and she passed me by without a word. Maybe she suspected something? But how could she guess…



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