Are Virtual Worlds Enhancing or Destroying Our Sense of Self?

Secondlife_main_485 It's rare that I stumble on a piece of writing that makes me immediately hit the "Share This Story!" button, but a research piece sent in by one of our readers has me excited.

Bob Lloyd, a multi-degreed former techie with a knack for the pen, recently wrote a piece for BlogCritic where he asked whether online worlds were replacing our sense of self with an amorphous nothingness.

Pixels and Policy breaks down Lloyd's research and asks: Are virtual worlds making us into little more than an ever-changing combination of groups and avatar masks?

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Should We Judge Real People By Their Avatars?

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      Who is behind the screen? Does it matter?

Would you trust your little brother or sister to a babysitter who arrives dressed in the latest bondage fashion?

Would you still consider your best friend a confidante if he spent his personal time seducing boys and girls no older than fourteen or fifteen?

What about this: Would your opinion of your friend or your babysitter change if you knew they portrayed these kinds of actions in virtual worlds?

 As the world connects to online gaming in ever larger numbers, the private lives of gamers may not be private for long.

Second Life came down hard against simulated pedophilia with a crop of new rules and regulations, an opening shot in what may become a drawn out debate over whether a player should be judged based on the actions of their avatar.

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The Curious Case of Racism in Second Life

Erika_in_midnight_skin The standard techno-optimist argument in favor of expanding the Metaverse goes something like this:

Virtual worlds hold the promise of commuication without regard for distance, physical ability, gender, or race. Every aspect of the avatar is flexible, rendering prejudice obsolete.

It appears such wishful thinking might be snagged on the heated issue of race. Pixels and Policy reports on a little-noticed study that says our racial biases are carrying over into the Metaverse.

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British Psychologists Analyze Sex and Morality in Second Life

When you're at home and hungry for pizza, do you order online? Do you feel an intimate attachment to your Second Life avatar? Do you find yourself seeking inspiration in the real-world for your next virtual product? A group of British psychologists hopes to understand why virtual worlds are such a large part of our lives at a recently-announced conference.

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The Online Therapy Institute (click to enlarge)

Anyone spending any amount of time in Second Life takes notice of its fantasy elements. Perfectly staid and buttoned-down people turn into sexual deviants in oversized animal outfits in the relative freedom and anonymity of the Metaverse.

Now Garry Young of Nottingham University asks why we act how we do in the virtual world.

From the article:

Young will question whether it is possible for people to consider computer games and online virtual worlds as taboo free zones where human morals need not be adhered to.

They will also propose that there could be a psychological cost for people who choose to play computer and online games where they can behave in potentially morally and legally unacceptable ways, while having to act within normal moral boundaries offline.

Ten years ago virtual worlds were a niche industry undeserving of serious scientific study. Now psychologists and researchers from around the world will assemble to discern what it is that draws millions of people to devote hours every week to virtual life.

The British psychologists are late to the game. The Online Therapy Institute has been active in Second Life for some time, providing consulting and other Metaverse services through a list of well-credentialed health care professionals.

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Virtual Prostitution (click to enlarge)

They do, however, raise a good series of questions. Why do we act the way we do in Second Life, where the dominance of sex shops and sexuality in general appears generally accepted?

As we mentioned in an article earlier today, one of the wealthiest players in Second Life is a virtual content pornographer who translated virtual success into real-world millionairedom.

If we feel liberated to be ourselves behind the anonymity of avatars, how will psychologists explain the evolving cultural norms of Second Life society? There certainly are plenty: Try using a push gun on someone who isn't in on the joke.

The conference is ongoing through tomorrow, and attendance requires a membership in The British Psychological Society. No dice on whether joining their Second Life group counts. We'll be sure to report on whatever findings these sagely scholars uncover.