One of the most interesting areas of study in virtual worlds has to do not with what we bring into the environment, but how an entirely virtual ecosystem changes the real-world player. Stanford University has been doing some very interesting research on the subject, and one of their most recent findings has the mainstream media paying attention.
According to research recently released by the Stanford University Virtual Human Interaction Lab, one of the leading virtual world research facilities in the country, players can be heavily influenced by what their avatar is doing.
Today we look at the first in a two-part breakdown of Stanford's most recent study. Today's article focuses on the potential business implications of the VHIL's findings. Saturday we'll take a look at what these findings tell us about the sociology and psychology of gamers and their avatars.
Avatars as Real-World Role Models
We've seen that people tend to bring their social views and biases into virtual worlds, but what, if anything, do virtual worlds export to reality? A recent article by the Stanford Report says that under certain circumstances, avatars may be influencing how their real-life creators think and act.
A Stanford research team found that, when an avatar closely resembles the player, there can be a notable effect in how that player acts after he or she logs off. For example, if a player spends their time in-world playing football through a realistic avatar, the actual player will be more likely to go outside and pick up a football. By comparison, players who let their avatars lounge around and shoot the breeze were more likely to follow that particular social path.
Christine Blackman's report sums it up well:
In Fox's first test, some participants put on the helmet and saw
their avatar running on a treadmill. Others saw themselves loitering in
the virtual room or saw a running avatar they didn't recognize.
Researchers found that study participants who saw their own avatars
running were more likely to exercise after they left the lab than
participants who saw someone else's avatar exercising or saw themselves
hanging out in a virtual room.
Fox contacted participants a day after the study and found that the
people who saw their own avatar running were more likely to exercise
(after they left the lab) than the people who saw someone else running
or saw themselves just hanging out in the virtual room. In fact, those
who watched themselves running were motivated to exercise, on average,
a full hour more than the others. They ran, played soccer or worked out
at the gym.
This is an impressive finding, and it raises interesting questions about the connections we forge with avatars that resemble our real-life selves. As Pixels and Policy noted in its study on the super-sexualization of female avatars, a fair percentage of female players said their avatar "represented them" with minimal body modification. These were also the characters most likely to dress "as they would dress in real life."
It's not hard to understand why we feel a sense of ownership and connectedness when it comes to our avatars – after all, players spend a good amount of time creating their virtual characters, often to an exacting standard of detail. The increasing power of technology provides not only more options for customization, but a more realistic final product. Stanford's research team noted that the likelihood of a player imitating an avatar increased the more an avatar resembled its player. The more an avatar reflects us, then, the more likely we are to see its actions as an extension of our own.
People are deeply invested in their avatars. The University of Texas made waves when it reported that "unattractive" avatars actually promoted a real-life negative self image in their players, with roughly the opposite effect if the player commanded an attractive character. Stanford's research adds to this with an important point: If an avatar looks like us and is doing something we can realistically do, we become more likely to mimic our virtual doppelganger.
Persuading Players Through Avatar Consciousness
If, as the Stanford research team argues, players are likely to emulate the behavior of their avatar-selves, both companies and civic-minded organizations will be interested in discovering the extent of its applied utility. Among the virtual worlds taking advantage of the potential marketability of custom avatars? None other than Avatar Reality's Blue Mars.
We reported back in December that a major Blue Mars developer partnered with the Smithsonian to expand public awareness of the Second Life competitor ahead of its public launch. What at first seemed like an interesting marketing concept – visitors to Smithsonian exhibits could opt to have their face mapped onto a high-definition Blue Mars avatar – now seems quite ahead of the curve.
Consider the fact that Blue Mars, like Second Life, offers plenty of virtual goods for sale. A company may gamble that, if a player and his or her identical avatar purchase a pair of virtual Reebok sneakers, there's a slight change the player will go out and purchase a similar pair of Reebok's in the future. The chance might not be very large, but given that our hypothetical virtual shopowner spent no money on this most viral of marketing techniques, even a 1% response rate translates to big potential sales.
As Stanford notes, when the avatar's face isn't close to the player's own, the effect melts away. This places a big premium on face mapping – the more accurate, the better – and opens up a new potential market for technology that can accurately reproduce a face in high definition on an avatar. But is this development good? Do players want the experience of having their face on an avatar co-opted by a constant stream of marketing aimed at the real-world player?
Leave your thoughts in our comments section. Tomorrow: What does Stanford's study tell us about ourselves?