Joys and dangers of work avatars

If you’re a business manager considering rolling out virtual workspaces, you may think that an avatar identity is nothing more than yet another user account, the login credentials for a particular piece of virtual world software.

At second look, you might think that avatar identities are closer to email addresses. Where an email account contains texts of emails, attachment, and lists of contacts, an avatar account would contain the avatar appearance, its inventory, and its friends.

However, users identify much more closely with their avatars than, say, with their email addresses. Users of virtual worlds like Second Life, Entropia Universe, and Blue Mars spend real money to dress and equip their avatars, they take their avatars to virtual parties, concerts, and dates. More disturbingly, they hold long debates about to what extent their avatars have separate identities and personalities.

My avatar on the OpenSim-based OSGrid, with the CyberExtruder skin.

My avatar on the OpenSim-based OSGrid, with the CyberExtruder skin.

At first, I thought they were crazy.

An avatar is simply a little animated picture that shows where you are in a virtual world. Identifying with your avatar is like… identifying with PacMan. Or those falling blocks in Tetris.

Personally, I’m not a big user of virtual worlds. I go into Second Life or the OpenSim grids for networking and business meetings, to work on collaborative design projects, and to check on products and services of potential interest to our readers. I don’t go to parties, I don’t play games. I don’t have a virtual family or a virtual farm or virtual children.

But when I bump into someone in a virtual world, I say “excuse me.” The other day, I was getting a tour of a virtual business campus — and looked both ways before walking across a virtual street. I have a problem with logging into Second Life because my hair doesn’t look like my hair in OSGrid — which I consider to be my “real” avatar. The first time I walked through a virtual Stargate — a portal to another virtual world — I felt an actual shiver.

I used to laugh this off as a weird psychological quirk.

No more. According to a recent study by the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, avatars that look like us can significantly affect the way we act and feel.

For example, people who saw their look-alike avatars exercising in a virtual environment exercised, an average, a full hour more the next day than those who didn’t, the researchers reported. There was no such effect with avatars who looked different.

So if people identify with their avatars, what are the potential implications for the virtual workplace?

POSITIVE BEHAVIOR MODIFICATION

Companies looking to instill certain behaviors in their employees — such as washing their hands before handling food — could put this research to work in their training programs. Employee avatars could be created based on actual photographs, or employees can be encouraged to customize their avatars. Then employees could guide their avatars through simulations that teach and test the new skills.

A more insidious approach is to have workplace avatars who are always sunny and cheerful, who bike around the virtual corporate campus, who snack on healthy foods during virtual corporate meetings, and who have a habit of saying things like, “I love this company!”

Of course, companies already try to affect employee morale and well-being, with corporate wellness programs, healthy food in the cafeteria, discounted gym memberships, and cheerful paint on the walls.

And employees are just the beginning. If people exercise more after watching their look-alike avatars exercise, will they drink more Coke if they see their avatars drink Coke? Maybe this is the real reason that Coca-Cola is looking for a new virtual home for its CCMetro center — previously located in the now-defunct There.com.

Meanwhile, at my company, I’m going to ask that our grid be redesigned so that we have to walk, bike or run everywhere. No more elevators! We’re taking the virtual stairs.

I wonder if I can put a virtual treadmill in my virtual office, and when I’m away from my keyboard have my avatar immediately go over to the treadmill, put on her iPod and start to run — instead of slouching over like unattended avatars normally do.

CORPORATE IDENTITY MANAGEMENT

Companies typically enforce uniform standards when it comes to their employee email identities. Email addresses are usually standarized to something like [email protected] Signatures are standard, and may even include company branding, or legal disclaimers. Some companies even specify the fonts that must be used.

It may seem natural for a company to exercise the same amount of control over its virtual world accounts, especially those hosted on enterprise platforms such as Second Life Enterprise, OpenSim, ProtoSphere, Olive, or Teleplace.

These platforms run behind corporate firewalls or in dedicated hosted environments, and avatar accounts are created by, managed, and paid for by the corporations that run the worlds.

Some companies allow employees to use personal avatars on public platforms like Second Life, which, from a technical point of view, is akin to allowing employees to use personal Hotmail accounts at work.

But people identify more with their avatars than they do with their email accounts. Employees expect to have different email accounts at home than they do at work, and know that they will lose access to the corporate network when they quit their jobs.

However, because they identify personally with avatars, they may be more reluctant to have a separate virtual identity at work, and have more problems giving it up when they leave.

Companies should be prepared for resistance when asking employees to switch to a different virtual world platform that requires new avatars. For example, I typically refuse requests to visit new virtual worlds if it requires that I create a new avatar. But I am more than happy to visit a new world via hypergrid teleport, since I can come with my regular avatar — and I feel more like myself. Wearing a “Ruth” avatar or another generic default avatar creeps me out, and I can’t be bothered to spend an hour or two customizing an avatar for a 10-minute tour.

At some point, we might see a separation between virtual identity, avatar appearance, virtual relationships, and virtual inventories, which may help alleviate some of these problems. This is already being talked about at the Virtual World Region Agent Protocol working group, part of the Internet Engineering Task Force.

For example, I would have my personal avatar appearance stored in the cloud, with a trusted hosting service. This may be an avatar version of Hotmail, or a multi-platform-enabled Evolver or CyberExtruder. This platform would store my body shape, my physical appearance, and my hair — possibly in a few different looks, for different occasions.

My corporate identity as an employee would be stored in my company directory. My personal identity would be with a trusted third party, like Facebook or Gmail, or with my own domain.

My virtual relationships would be managed by Facebook, or by Gmail, or LinkedIn, or by my company’s contact database, or by the virtual worlds where I’m a resident — or a combination of all of these.

My virtual assets would also be stored in multiple locations — on corporate servers, in online hosting services, in cloud storage, or even on my desktop. Any particular virtual world would allow me to access some of these services. For example, while in a company world, I would be able to pull a new pair of shoes out of my personal inventory to wear to an important client meeting, but I wouldn’t be able to take a company financial presentation and put it into my personal inventory.

We are already seeing the beginnings of this, with Twitter and Facebook APIs that allow users to re-use those identities and networks of relationships in a multitude of other settings.

THE DARK SIDE OF THE AVATAR

The human tendency to over-identify with the avatar has its negative implications.

For example, employees who use a non-standard avatar in their online social life may expect to be able to use that avatar at work. Do vampires, sexy nurses, furries, aliens, robots, or medieval warriors fit with your corporate image? And if employees are allowed to be vampires in virtual meetings, will they expect to be allowed to come to work as vampires in real life?

Many people are already experimenting with new identities in virtual worlds, up to and including switching gender. It takes just a click of a button — and a fun-filled shopping trip trying on new clothes and hair — to go from being a dumpy middle-aged guy to a gorgeous young woman in a virtual world. Or vice versa. No messy surgery involved, and no embarrassing discussions with family and co-workers.

Some people will use this opportunity to experiment with their gender identities in a safe environment before making the move official in real life — but is the workplace the appropriate setting for this?

Or maybe the virtual worlds will help usher in a new, post-gender age where  people change genders as casually as they now change clothes or hair color.

Until there, we’re in for some serious confusion in the workplace.

Another source of potential confusion is when avatars act inappropriately towards one another. If one avatar is making sexual advances or beats up on another is it just “cartoon violence”? It is too easy to dismiss a violent act — after all, there is violence all over video games. We don’t cry when our PacMan is eaten by ghosts.

Again, this is where the identification issue comes in. We don’t identify with PacMan or with the characters in Grand Theft Auto because we know they’re not us. The line demarcating where we end and where the video game character is begins to blur in games like World of Warcraft, where we can customize our characters to a limited extent. By the time we get to virtual worlds like Second Life, that line is very tenuous.

If we identify with our avatars then virtual sexual or physical aggression may have a similar kind of psychological impact as actual  physical aggression.

There have been cases of virtual rape in Second Life and other virtual worlds. A corporate virtual world may look like a video game but in this respect, as in many others, it is not a game. The feelings that are hurt are very real and some people may even feel physical symptoms as a result of virtual attacks — especially people who have suffered before. Just as companies are required to ensure that employees have a safe physical location in which to work, they must also ensure that the virtual workplace is safe as well.

A virtual workplace that allows aggression may expose the company to legal liability — and, if the Stanford study is anything to go by — may even encourage similar behavior in real life.

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maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.