SLENZ Update, No 152, November 23, 2009

A TALE OF TWO WOMEN

Can avatar appearance  have  an

effect on  your Real  Life?

University of Texas Study

Exhibit 1 – can an avatar appearance change your real life?

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.
Exhibit 2 – can avatar appearance change your real life?

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.

Advertisements

The SLENZ Update – No 33, December 10, 2008

SLENZ ‘open’ workshop

Registrations Closed December 12: December 15, from 9am to 5pm (New Zealand Time) (SL Time 12 noon – 8 pm December 14) : New Zealand’s leading virtual world learning research group, Second Life Education New Zealand (SLENZ), has invited interested educators to attend a free, one-day workshop in real life on Wellington Institute of Technology’s Wellington campus and in Second Life on the Nelson-Marlborough Institute of Technology’s island of Koru (http://slurl.com/secondlife/Koru/156/122/27). Registration essential on first-come, first-served basis as numbers limited. For registration email: Susan.Jenkins@weltec.ac.nz

OLIVE has a silver lining …

Self-proclaimed  market and technology leader in enterprise virtual world, Forterra Systems, is using the economic downturn and collaboration with IBM, to spruik  its virtual worlds’ experience as being “better” and less costly than conference calling, the mainstay of world business.

Offering innovative collaboration features and IBM Lotus Sametime Integration with its OLIVETM(On-Line Interactive Virtual Environment) 2.2 Release, Forterra Systems plans to ship the new software later this month.

The video demonstration of the new software shows it will be of interest to educators around the world given some of the vagaries of other virtual world systems.

Forterra Systems says the new features have been prompted by feedback from several customers in global organisations and analysts who have noted that virtual meetings in OLIVE are both more engaging and less expensive then traditional Web and audio conference calls.

“The combination of OLIVE’s spatially accurate VoIP-based audio along with several new media-sharing features and Lotus Sametime integration provides the next generation of interactive communications infrastructure,” Forterra says in a press release. (http://www.forterrainc.com/index.php/resources/109-forterra-announces-olive22)

“With the challenging financial times most enterprises are curtailing travel and rethinking how their organisations hold events, training sessions, conduct periodic meetings, or improve their collaboration processes.

“Audio and Web conferencing are inexpensive, ubiquitous, and generally easy to use,” the release says. ” However for meetings involving complex or longer topics the participants can be challenged to grasp the discussion context and maintain focus due to multi-tasking. Virtual meetings in OLIVE are proving to be less expensive yet more engaging and productive for users. Most enterprise-grade teleconferencing systems charge $0.10 to $0.25 per person per minute which can equate to thousands of dollars of expense per employee every year. OLIVE pricing is an order of magnitude less.

“Forterra believes the fastest path for large-scale virtual world adoption within organisations is for 3D meetings to be an easy-to-use extension of the existing unified communications tools employees already use every day. Forterra’s integration of OLIVE with Lotus Sametime is the first robust offering in the market to pursue this strategy. When integrated to Lotus Sametime, immersive 3D environments built with OLIVE provide an interactive communications platform that is unsurpassed for collaboration, training, and knowledge management use cases.”Second Life: ‘Second China’ Offers Foreign Service Workers First Impression

Diplomatic training

chinasl1

Picture courtesy ScienceDaily

United States diplomats or military envoys making their first trip to China may soon have a chance to visit a Chinese office building, stop in at a traditional teahouse or hop a cab – all before they board a plane, according to US web-based publication ScienceDaily (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081029154856.htm)
A team of University of Florida computer engineers and scholars has used the popular online world Second Life to create a virtual Chinese city  for users who want to familiarise themselves with the sights and experiences they will encounter as first-time visitors.

The goal of the federally funded research project is to educate and prepare foreign service or other government professionals to arrive in the country prepared and ready to work, .ScienceDaily reported.

Julie Henderson, an international program specialist at the UF College of Pharmacy and co-principal investigator and project designer for the effort, was quoted by ScienceDaily as saying: “I think what we hope is that this kind of environment can provide a bridge between knowledge alone and actually being in the real-life environment.”

One wonders how long the US’s three-letter agencies have been doing the same thing in Second Life.

Medical  VWs ‘suspend disbelief’

Evaluations of  virtual world simulation exercises for medical trainees  have shown that the trainees themselves find VWs to be adequately realistic to “suspend disbelief,” according to a Stanford University research project entitled, “Simulation for Team Training and Assessment: Case Studies of Online Training with Virtual Worlds.”

The results of the study done by  William LeRoy Heinrichs, Patricia Youngblood and Parvati Dev, Stanford University Medical Media and Information Technologies (SUMMIT),  Phillip M. Harter, Department of Surgery, Division of Emergency Medicine, Stanford University,  were published by The World Journal of Surgery. (http://www.springerlink.com/content/82211030u48h01l5/)

The authors said the trainees quickly learnt to use Internet voice communication and user interface to navigate their online character/avatar to work effectively in a critical care team. surgery

“Our findings demonstrate that these virtual ED environments fulfill their promise of providing repeated practice opportunities in dispersed locations with uncommon, life-threatening trauma cases in a safe, reproducible, flexible setting,” they said.

Earlier in their abstract of their paper they had noted that individuals in clinical training programs concerned with critical medical care must learn to manage clinical cases effectively as a member of a team.

“However, practice on live patients is often unpredictable and frequently repetitive,” they said. “The widely substituted alternative for real patients-high-fidelity, manikin-based simulators (human patient simulator)-are expensive and require trainees to be in the same place at the same time, whereas online computer-based simulations, or virtual worlds, allow simultaneous participation from different locations.”

In the paper they present three virtual world studies for team training and assessment in acute-care medicine: (1) training emergency department (ED) teams to manage individual trauma cases; (2) prehospital and in-hospital disaster preparedness training; (3) training ED and hospital staff to manage mass casualties after chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive incidents.

For the project the  research team created realistic virtual victims of trauma (6 cases), nerve toxin exposure (10 cases), and blast trauma (10 cases); the latter two groups were supported by rules-based, pathophysiologic models of asphyxia and hypovolemia.

Event

December 12, SLtime,  10 am-4:30pm: The Louisiana Invitational Conference, Virtual Worlds in Higher Education presented by the University of New Orleans, Southeastern Louisiana University, Southern University in New Orleans and Tulane University, at The Louisiana Regents Estate in Second Life. Keynote speaker: Jeremy Kemp, instructional designer at San Jose University’s School of Library & Information Science. Other speakers:  Thomas Kohler, of the University of Innsbruck, Joshua Squires, of the University of Georgia, Daniel Livingstone, of the University of West Scotland, and Gwenette Sinclair, of Kennesaw State University. No entrance fee. If you would like to attend the conference, visit http://virtualcampus.uno.edu/ and click “Register.” You will need to provide your name, avatar name, and e-mail.