Are we human or are we avatars?

A very special component of working and learning in 3D Multi User Virtual Environments (MUVES) like Second Life (SL) is the avatar involving a  creation of our own ’double’, an experience which is both disorienting and exhilarating! In SL there are choices about how the avatar looks and responds to others and the environment.

Behind every avatar is a living, breathing, learning human being. After basic skills such as movement and camera controls are tackled, immersion and dialogue becomes simpler, more enjoyable and effective. After this initial induction into SL, there is a powerful stage of experience of personal development, where there is a suspension of disbelief and the avatar is immersed in the experience. One way of describing this is that the experience transcends being a ‘puppet’ to that of extension of self.

When these type of experiences occur freely in SL, individuals may engage in activity or experiences that they would not undertake in Real Life (RL). If such an experience can be made purposeful and designed for learning, it seems to me we have tools at our disposal the like of which no educators have ever had before.

Some people work hard to represent their avatars as (usually slightly improved) but recognisable versions of their RL selves.  Others are intrigued by the opportunity to ‘become’ something completely differently. (Almost all avatars want to exploit SL’s capacity of allowing them to fly!)  Teleporting (moving instantly anywhere in the virtual world) also appeals in our traffic-ridden RL. 

Many of the hopes and predictions for the future for 3D MUVES centre on identity experimentation, self-revelation and role play and the creative variation of social norms around gender, ethnicity, social class, and group values and goals. Areas to exploit in the future include the intrinsic nature of playfulness, exploration, immersion and naturalistic learning. It looks like the role of avatar identity and its role in learning and teaching is likely to exercise numbers of researchers if 3D MUVES continue to increase in popularity and diversity.

Is your avatar going to be part of it?

Gilly Salmon/Genevieve Simons

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.

%d bloggers like this: