A TALE OF TWO WOMEN
Can avatar appearance have an
effect on your Real Life?
University of Texas Study
This is partially the tale of two women*. But it is also a story of how avatar appearance can affect one’s experience of Second Life and cross-over into Real Life.
I personally know a number of women, both in Second Life and in Real Life, who have had the experience I want to talk about. There are many others who talk in places like “Hey Girlfriend” about their considerable weight losses since entering Second Life. However, for reasons of anonymity I have combined some features of these women’s lives into the two women I’m discussing. They are both in their 40s, highly educated and have executive positions with the organisations they work with.
One, however, although her Australian organisation is involved in researching business uses of virtual worlds, uses Second Life almost exclusively for social networking, spending two to three hours a day on-line, time which she once spent as a couch potato in front of the cable television. She now has what she calls “real friends” from around the world in Second Life. She has been, what she would claim is ” fully immersed” in Second Life for about four years. Her experience there has run the gamut from role playing to building and doing most of the things she could and does in Real Life. Her avatar is slim and very attractive, although not of the barbie-doll favoured by many users of Second Life, and it wears high fashion clothes ranging from fairly skimpy to more conservative. Although she obtains most of her clothing free, she has a staggering number of high-fashion, high quality items in her inventory.
The other, although she was not press-ganged into visiting a virtual world, chose to become part of Second Life as part of her work three years ago, although skeptical of the benefits. Outside of the “immersion” required for her work she seldom visits Second Life preferring to spend time in the evenings working, sitting in front of television with her husband. Her avatar reflects what she considers her real life; overweight and frumpy with few attractive features. Her clothing inventory consists of a few real life-style, work related but serviceable items such as slacks and a sweaters, but nothing which could be even remotely be regarded as fashionable let alone fantasy.
Both were considerably overweight when they started in virtual worlds. One could say the first women perceived and still perceives her virtual life as wish-fulfillment and fantasy, the second woman perceives her’s as career-enhancing “drudgery.”
But the most interesting thing about these two women for me – and this is not a scientific study – is that:
- In four years the first woman – the one with the slim, attractive avatar – has lost about 100 lbs in weight, taken up gym three to four days a week, started to learn salsa and tango with her husband, changed her wardrobe, and through her own efforts gained a number of promotion rungs at her work. Where she was previously depressed about her future, she is now a livewire and enthusiastic about her work. She has also long-term cut her calorie intake in half.
- In the three years since the second woman entered Second Life – the one with the overweight, unattractive avatar – her life has changed little. She still sits watching television most nights with her husband – he much prefers it that way – and although still ambitious feels her career in a US academic institution is either depressingly at a standstill, or at a cross roads. Since joining Second Life her weight has ballooned – she wont disclose by how much – she still gets little exercise and obviously has not cut her calorie intake.
Of course, there may be many other reasons why these two women’s Second Life experiences may have led to vastly different Real Life experiences but I was reminded of them by an article in a fairly recent issue of ScienceDaily under the headline, “Avatars Can Surreptitiously And Negatively Affect User In Video Games, Virtual Worlds.”
Quoting Jorge Peña, assistant professor in the College of Communication at the University of Texas, at Austin, the on-line magazine said that although often seen as an inconsequential feature of digital technologies, one’s self-representation, or avatar, in a virtual environment could affect a user’s thoughts. The study was co-written with Cornell University Professor Jeffrey T. Hancock and University of Texas at Austin graduate student Nicholas A. Merola. It appeared in the December 2009 issue of Communication Research.
The study ” demonstrated that the subtext of an avatar’s appearance could simultaneously prime negative (or anti-social) thoughts and inhibit positive (or pro-social) thoughts inconsistent with the avatar’s appearance even though study participants remained unaware they had been primed,” the article said.
“In two separate experiments, research participants were randomly assigned a dark- or white-cloaked avatar, or to avatars wearing physician or Ku Klux Klan-like uniforms or a transparent avatar. The participants were assigned tasks including writing a story about a picture, or playing a video game on a virtual team and then coming to consensus on how to deal with infractions, ” Science Daily said.
“Consistently, participants represented by an avatar in a dark cloak or a KKK-like uniform demonstrated negative or anti-social behavior in team situations and in individual writing assignments.”
Previous studies, ScienceDaily said, had demonstrated these uniform types to have negative effects on people’s behaviors in face-to-face interactions. For example, Cornell researchers Mark Frank and Tom Gilovich have shown that dark uniforms influence professional sports teams to play more aggressively on the playing field and in the laboratory. Peña’s research has now demonstrated how these effects operate in desktop-based video games, and sheds light on the automatic cognitive processes that explain this effect.
“When you step into a virtual environment, you can potentially become ‘Mario’ or whatever other character you are portraying,” said Peña, who studies how humans think, behave and feel online. “Oftentimes, the connotations of our own virtual character will subtly remind us of common stereotypes, such as ‘bad guys wear black or dress up in hooded robes.’ This association may surreptitiously steer users to think and behave more antisocially, but also inhibit more pro-social thoughts and responses in a virtual environment.”
“By manipulating the appearance of the avatar, you can augment the probability of people thinking and behaving in predictable ways without raising suspicion,” said Peña. “Thus, you can automatically make a virtual encounter more competitive or cooperative by simply changing the connotations of one’s avatar.”
Reading this I wondered about the two women I referred to above. Has one, the American, inadvertently reinforced the depressingly, negative image she has of herself by making her avatar appearance worse than she actually appears in Real Life? And has the other, the Australian, done the reverse to achieve striking Real Life benefits?
It’s obviously another question for virtual world scientists.
But on the other hand, in my experience, it doesn’t have quite the same effect on some males. I haven’t become the 6ft 7in All American Don Juan that my avatar suggests I could be and my wishful thinking suggests I should be. My real life personna and appearance has remained. I’m still just a little nerd who is boringly ordinary.
I, however, don’t doubt there are men in Second Life who have lost weight too.
* Some details have been altered to protect their identities.
Filed under: Education, Education in Second Life, Education in virtual worlds, Online identity, Second Life, Video Gaming, Virtual Worlds Tagged: | Communication Research, Cornell University, Jeffrey T. Hancock, Jorge Pena, Mark Frank, Nicholas A. Mercola, Obesity and Second Life, Obesity and virtual worlds, ScienceDaily, Second Life, Tom Gilovich, University of Texas