Can Avatars Change Our Behaviour?

By Becca Caddy

The little doppelgangers we use to play games, talk to people online and dance around on the Wii could be affecting us a lot more than we think…

An avatar is a visual representation of yourself that can then be used in online and virtual environments. Whether you decide to create an avatar that looks exactly like you, tweak its features a little or fashion a whole new appearance and ethnicity, it’s essentially just you online.

An avatar does what you want it to do, so for instance, I jump around on the Wii Fit and so does the little Mii, which is basically the Wii word for avatar. However, research over the past few years suggests that how avatars behave, what they do and how they look could actually affect the way we think and act in the real world.

Jesse Fox, a researcher from Stanford University, found that people are likely to imitate the behaviour of an avatar in real life if it looks like them. She drafted in a number of participants and mapped their faces and bodies onto separate avatars. She then showed some of the participants a clip of their avatar running, some a clip of their avatar standing still and others an avatar that didn’t look like them.

In the weeks after the initial study, Fox and the team observed and interviewed the participants and found that those who saw their avatar running were more likely to have run than those who saw their avatar standing still. In fact they were motivated to do even more exercise than the others during the following weeks.

Interestingly though, if the participants saw avatars running that didn’t look like them, they weren’t motivated to exercise. So, it’s not just about seeing an avatar running, the impact only comes from those people recognized to look like them. These kinds of findings could certainly be exploited when it comes to motivating people to exercise, lose weight and take better care of their bodies.

Fox’s work was part of Stanford University’s dedicated Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which aims to “understand the dynamics and implications of interactions among people in immersive virtual reality simulations (VR), and other forms of human digital representations in media, communication systems, and games”.

There have been countless fascinating findings to come from the lab and if these kinds of studies interest you, I’d highly recommend checking out the projects that are currently ongoing and some of the published papers, particularly Virtual Virgins and Vamps which explores whether the way avatars dress and behave could have an affect on attitudes toward women.

Image via Yukali.

Becca Caddy is a BitchBuzz Tech columnist and freelance writer. She is also the UK editor of US-based tech blog You can follow her @beccacaddy or read her blog

Tue, 12 Apr 2011 09:00 (GMT+01)
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