Book: Virtual avatars have real impact

The experiences people have in virtual worlds such as Second Life influence their behavior in real life, according to a new book.

“There are consequences of spending 20 hours weekly using an avatar in a virtual reality,” said Jeremy Bailenson, co-author of Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution, speaking at MICA Talks on May 7. Bailenson is also the director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

“We have run 30 or 40 studies to find out,” he said.


One of the areas studied was how people are affected by the appearance of their avatars.

“Beauty is free in virtual world,” said Bailenson. Users can make their avatars as attractive – or unattractive – as they wish.

But despite the fact that the attractive avatars are completely fictional, people using them act friendlier and more extraverted than less attractive ones, he said. And not just while they were in the virtual world. The effects were still felt an hour after the users had logged off, Bailenson said.

Relating to the disabled

Users of avatars who are disabled, or members of a minority group, or simply different from the user themselves can also change how people act and feel towards members of those groups.

For example, in one study, participants went through simulations in which they were color blind. This caused them to be more helpful to people who have this problem in real life, said Bailenson.

These kinds of simulations can help people deal with other groups with increased confidence, said Bailenson, as well as with greater compassion and empathy.

Avatar ethics

Jeremy Bailenson

People can practice good or evil ethics, using online games and avatars, said Bailenson.

There are online worlds where people can experiment with immoral activity – there’s a game, for example, in which players visit prostitutes and then murder them for their money, he said.

The game vividly demonstrates that prostitutes are vulnerable to being robbed and murdered, more so than people in other lines of work, said Bailenson.

When people have virtual experiences where they see consequences of their behavior, whether beneficial or harmful, their real life behavior can be affected, he said.

One example is weight loss — people who saw their avatars lose weight by exercising were more likely to exercise in real life, he said.

Who am I?

Since extensive use of avatars influences the way people behave in real life, their very identities are changed as a result. Many times, he says, the process is subconscious.

“We are not aware that it is happening,” he said.

Of particular concern, Bailenson said, is the use of avatars by children whose minds are still forming.

According to Stanford research, children between the ages of eight and 18 spend an average of 20 hours weekly using online avatars, he said.

Bailenson said that people use avatars for many reasons, ranging from entertainment to business and education.

There are times when an environment is strictly professional or purely informal and then there are middle grounds, where there may be some cross over between the personal and the professional, he said.

People who only have an avatar to play World of Warcraft do not have the same relationship to their avatar as the people who use Second Life to conduct business seminars. Both users will be affected by their experiences, according to Bailenson, but how they are affected will be different given what they did and whether their avatar was designed to be like themselves or unlike themselves.

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Miriam Pia

Miriam Pia is a freelance business and technology writer based in Dörverden, Germany.

3 Responses

  1.' Karen Michelle Lane says:

    What a timely article. Indeed, I find that putting my “Best” self forward through my SecondLife Avatar has many positive repercussions in my real life, both in the way I now present myself and how I perceive my business associates and friends. I’ve met a great many individuals with life challenges that I have come to have a greater appreciation of – People that I would have never met in my normal day to day existence. This awareness creates an opportunity for growth in spirit and mind for those who are open to it.

    Setting aside time to be in my Virtual World of choice also fills a deep desire of mine to return to my love of music by researching and creating song sets for the virtual clubs I spend time in as a DJ. Music provides healing of the first magnitude in my opinion and its ability to set a mood and affect those who listen my theme sets is incredibly rewarding for me personally.

  2.' Karen Michelle Lane says:

    Part 2

    I do agree that the “Ethics” you chose to bring and live by in your existence in a VW define who you are and how others perceive you. We continue to take all the normal lessons from living by the rules of behavior bounded by our Ethical and Moral Compasses. When we choose to practice an alternative existence, for example as in a Role Play scenario/group, we many times adopt the Ethics/Rules of that groups mainline existence. I’ve seen and experienced Vampires, Lycans & Humans from the fictional Twilight Novels to warring factions from Frank Herbert’s Dune universe to Urban Warriors from an Apocalyptic future to Bodice Ripping passion in a brutal yet chivalrous Medieval era. These all have been interesting and mostly rewarding experiences.

    The example cited in the article regarding patently immoral behavior of committing violence against prostitutes/women may have a place only in VWs but I find that a too narrow a focus on this type of experience speaks to other fundamental issues with the players of that world mindset. I’m sure that such areas may exist in SecondLife but I have no interest in finding them.

  3.' Karen Michelle Lane says:

    Part 3

    Virtual Worlds have also helped me with character studies I have been creating to help populate several short stories I’m working on.

    I’m pleased to see more research being conducted in this area and eagerly await the publication of the findings.

    KarenMichelle Land of SecondLife