Your avatar and you: opening the digital frontier or perpetuating the status quo?

Nick Yee is senior research scientist at Ubisoft who has been involved in studying the psychological impact our avatars can have both on ourselves and with others since the early 2000s, starting as an undergraduate researcher focused on Everquest before moving into studies involving Second Life. He is also the author of the recently published The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us– and How They Don’t, an examination of our increasingly complex relationships with our digital Doppelgängers.

In an article for Slate magazine entitled Virtual Worlds Are Real, Yee offers something of a taster for the book, and it’s a fascinating piece outlining the profound effect avatars actually do have on us, and which actually goes some way towards explaining why security concerns over how virtual worlds might be used weren’t as silly as people might think.

Nick Yee
Nick Yee

Some of what Yee covers is already familiar to many of us using Second Life; we’re often prone to state ourselves, while the avatars on the screen may be pixels, the minds and emotions behind them most certainly aren’t. Hence why  – unfortunately – Second life has been known to attract psychological predators bent on baiting others for their own perverse amusement, either individually or in cliques.

Many of us are also familiar with a range of studies and also individual cases where the positive identification with our own avatars has been shown to yield genuine benefits. Most recently, we’ve had the remarkable story of Fran Swenson (Fran Seranade in SL), and there have been studies such as those by  Dr. Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz, which demonstrated how people’s choice of avatar directly affected their real-world existence and how they view themselves. Then, of course, there were the 2010 Stanford and 2011 Indiana University studies into avatars and weight loss. Yee points to the latter studies and on one involving students who, while initially unwilling to consider the future proved far more willing to put aside money for retirement after engaging with their virtual Doppelgängers which had been digitally aged by some forty years.

These are also positive examples of how we relate to out avatars and, in some cases to those around us. However, Yee also points out there are negatives as well. In terms of gender, for example, he notes how those using the opposite sex for their character within World of Warcraft were more likely to conform to gender expectations, helping to perpetuate a false gender stereotype. “We assume that virtual worlds allow us to reinvent ourselves and leave behind offline norms and prejudices,” Yee notes in regard to this. “But the truth is more sobering. Virtual worlds can and often perpetuate the status quo.”

The Proteus Paradox
The Proteus Paradox

That avatars can have a profound psychological impact on us might also help in understanding why GCHQ and the NSA were (are?) concerned about the potential of virtual environments to foster terrorist or other activities.

At the time the news on the activities of GCHQ and the NSA broke, there was talk of how an “Osama bin Laden” like avatar could be used to influence others. Yee counters the dismissals that such worries were “nonsense” with a quite sobering counter-argument.

Just before the 2004 US Presidential election, Yee and his colleagues invited people of voting age to each sit before photos of the two contenders: John Kerry and George Bush and select, purely on the basis of the photos, who they would be inclined to vote for. Unbeknownst to each participant, either the photo of Kerry or the photo of Bush has been morphed to include around 25% of the participant’s own features.  The result?

“Even in a high-stakes, high-information election scenario,” Yee says of the experiment, “our study participants were more likely to vote for the candidate they had been morphed with. When participants were morphed with Kerry, the effect was strong enough to have won him the election.”

Yee goes on, “That study helps explain why a Bin Laden avatar is potentially useful: It could be individually tailored to potential recruits. In a virtual world where every user sees only her version of reality, a Bin Laden avatar could be tailored to hundreds of users at the same time. ”

This doesn’t excuse the manner in which GCHQ (in particular, who developed a means to access and trawl the XBox Live network and who sent three days gathering some 176,000 lines of data pertaining to Second Life chats, IMs and transactions) and the NSA went about their business within Second Life and World of Warcraft, but it does tend to underline why they were concerned.

All-in-all a fascinating article introducing what would appear to be a fascinating book. I’ve already ordered my copy.

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10 thoughts on “Your avatar and you: opening the digital frontier or perpetuating the status quo?

    1. Ta. I’m not an Apple user, so don’t tend to check. I’m also still a lover of a good, solid book than an ebook :). Hopefully my copy will be here by the end of the week.


        1. i don’t read books but i read the inter webs, so I’m hoping ibooks will help me meet half way


  1. In my first year in SL, I was very optimistic about people using avatar identity as a vehicle of positive personal evolution that would be integrated into their offline life. But as I began to meet more people and observe the interactions and behavior around me, it seemed that many people were just extending their neuroses, compulsive behaviors and addictions to the virtual world; they ended up suffering in two lives instead of one. So it seems to me that like physical life, virtual life is largely what we make of it, with perhaps more power and potency to rapidly set us off on a positive, creative and enlightening path; or supercharge our negative and self-destructive tendencies.


    1. That’s the underlying truism of all this. Human nature is human nature; we’re driven by a psychological predisposition as much in the virtual as in the real.


    1. Yee’s experiment was with people from outside SL in the age range of 18-74; but I do get where you’re coming from 🙂 .


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