Avatar or Invisible Man?

When I joined the SWIFT project, I began as an experienced Second Lifer. I had seen numerous people arrive in Second Life for the first time, with something like half of them staying and enjoying the experience, while the others never returned. Over time, I developed a hypothesis that there were two things that “hooked” people into returning:

1) those who stayed formed friendships of some kind during their first visit

2) those who stayed were interested in their avatar as a second identity, spending time and money on creating a “look”

Thus, for the first SWIFT experiment, we incorporated a significant amount of avatar personalisation into the Second Life training part of the experiment.

For the second experiment, we did less of this, mainly because it was just too time-consuming for the students to spend a whole hour on learning to use a piece of software that they may only use once.

And an interesting thing happened. When I interviewed the students afterwards, it seems that the avatar wasn’t particularly relevant to their experience. In fact, one person would have been happy to not see the avatar at all. So why the difference?

I’m thinking that it’s because the need for purpose is being satisfied in a different way. For “recreational” use, Second Life is, on the face of it, quite poor; one “arrives” somewhere in-world, and, well, that’s about it! It’s not a “game” – there’s nothing to “do” – so unless you meet someone interesting it seems a very lonely place. For our experiment though, there is something specific to do. We have a virtual genetics lab, and one can perform “simulated” experiments. that is the purpose, in fact, almost, the “game play”.

Which brings us to the question of identification with the avatar. If one is in Second Life with a definite purpose, and it’s neither necessary nor useful to socialise, the avatar doesn’t really have a role. It just, as one participant said, keeps standing in the way of something you’re trying to look at.

If this is the case, then it’s really good news for SWIFT. If the avatar proves to be unimportant for the learning situation we are creating, then we could reduce the training time significantly.

We’ll be reporting on this in our next paper. . .

Paul Rudman, BDRA

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  1. Hi Paul, I’ll throw my thoughts in as a 6 year SL user and one who works with businesses and educators daily in several virtual technologies.

    I find your point to be on target. While many of my colleagues have created new companies based on the importance of “photo-realistic” avatars, we have found no real support for that being an issue in the overall experience in the virtual environment. It might add “pretty”, but that wears thin pretty quickly.

    My PhD research looking at the experience of new users in SL did not show any real correlation with satisfaction and the avatar’s look. What was important was the personal “experience” that took place in-world. If what was experienced had personal meaning for the user, the response was positive. If the user found no personal meaning in what was going on…all the “pretty” in the virtual world did not help.

    Interestingly, when users found personal meaning…they were not distracted by the various technical challenges, did not complain about a steep “learning curve” or much of anything else. They saw those things as just issues to overcome so they could get back to the meaningful activity.

    From all this…and here’s my friendly “plug”, I created the TranceFormational Learning model which we now use to develop learning and training activities that lead to creating more personal meaning for learners…in virtual or real world activities. End of plug…

    One last comment. The one and only time I truly found the avatar appearance to be an issue was in one project working with a big time CEO of a well known corporation. As he refused to participate in a virtual event his board wanted, his comment was, “Nobody is going to make ME look like a cartoon character!”. That’s not an avatar issue…that’s an ego issue….

    Thanks Paul

    • bdra

       /  March 9, 2011

      Thanks John,
      I like your term “personal meaning” as the main reason people continue to use virtual worlds.
      The avatar would then become an optional tool in helping to generate a personal meaning. With the latest SWIFT experiment it seems the meaning came from the learning activity we designed.
      In other situations, interaction with other people(‘s avatars) is the main generator of personal meaning. In that case, I think the avatar can help because we are used to interacting with people as physical beings and usually find that easier than, say, only speaking on the phone.

  2. Exactly Paul. The huge attraction of successful games, digital and other, comes from the experience the players have while playing, not just because of one element in that game. What I enjoyed during my years of working in the game industry was the way the developers focused as much on the world of the player as they did on the world of the game itself. That’s what has pulled me into developing the approach we take in learning design. It looks like your aiming at the same target with SWIFT. Good luck!


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