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.'