As everybody knows, Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash coined the modern sense of the word avatar, from the Sanskrit word avatāra, meaning something similar to incarnation. Before James Cameron’s runaway hit movie, an avatar was considered a three-dimensional model representing you or an alter ego in computer games; or a two-dimensional icon on Internet forums and other communities.
That was so five minutes ago.
On many fronts simultaneously, avatars are changing how we think of ourselves, how we see ourselves, and especially challenging our sense of identity. An avatar is the quintessential Metalife. It can look like you, even move, talk, and think like you. But how prepared are you to say it is you? Some part of you? Before you answer, consider the following study by Stanford researchers Yee and Bailenson, showing the effect of an altered self-representation on behavior in an online environment:
Participants who had more attractive avatars exhibited increased self-disclosure and were more willing to approach opposite-gendered strangers after less than 1 minute of exposure to their altered avatar. In other words, the attractiveness of their avatars impacted how intimate participants were willing to be with a stranger.
In our second study, participants who had taller avatars were more willing to make unfair splits in negotiation tasks than those who had shorter avatars, whereas participants with shorter avatars were more willing to accept unfair offers than those who had taller avatars. Thus, the height of their avatars impacted how confident participants became.
These two studies show the dramatic and almost instantaneous effect that avatars have on behavior in digital environments.
More than our behavior in virtual environments is changing. Our sense of personal boundaries, our relationship to our bodies and to others—all are affected by the rush to avatar ourselves.
As a result, the avatar doppelgänger has become a meme-magnet, attracting to it various ideas, trends, and practices. But I want to be clear: I do not consider avatar-ing to be a mind game. This is not, in Sir Ken Robinson’s elegant locution, a case of arranging a stunt double “to carry our heads from meeting to meeting.” Avatars alter our sense ratio. They scramble our proprioception. The plain fact is avatars take us in another body somewhere we have never been before. While some may see an avatar as the ultimate self-referential indulgence, or others as a kind of psychological recursion, avatars are doing something new to us.
Whatever your “blink” reaction to this novelty may be, I urge you to consider the following and reflect. How are these uses of avatars expanding what it means to be human, to be you? And then, how should we explore that meaning before jumping to premature cognitive commitments which can keep us from seeing the fuller understanding of what we’re actually up to here?
Ten New Narratives
The following are ten new narratives emerging from the counter-logic of avatars in our midst. I don’t claim that these are conclusive; undoubtedly there are others.
1. Embodied consciousness. This is where the leave-your-body, jump-into-an-avatar meme started. The year: 1984. The character: Case in Neuromancer: He was “jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix.” An avatar is a way to embody consciousness. With an avatar we’re no longer pure thought weaving its way through matrixed infinity. We have bodies in so-called ‘real life.’ Our brains are designed to extend our bodies into our tools. And so, because the body has a mind of its own, having cyber flesh, i.e., an avatar, is the most natural way for our brains to conceive of identity in a virtual world.
2. A backup brain. Once a physical incarnation (the avatar mini-me) was in place, the idea of a portable hard drive brain (in the form of software) became attractive. As Ray Kurzweil writes in The Singularity Is Near, Uploading the Human Brain: “Uploading a human brain means scanning all of its salient details and then reinstantiating those details into a suitably powerful computational substrate. This process would capture a person’s entire personality, memory, skills, and history.” An avatar provides the package for Kurzweil’s computational substrate.
3. A ticket to immortality. Companies like Lifenaut (positioning line: “eternalize”) promise brain-backup which then “allows anyone to create a rich backup of their life.” Lifenaut has a “biofile” to store your DNA for possible reincarnation later, and a “mindfile” where you can “create a computer-based avatar to interact and respond with your attitudes, values, mannerisms and beliefs.” Nick Mayer of Lifenaut: “It really is a way of avoiding death.”
4. Bodily transport into immersive virtual environments. Second Life launched in 2003 running on just 16 servers with barely 1000 dedicated users. At the beginning of 2010 there were about 750,000 active monthly Second Life users. In this virtual world, like most others, your avatar not only represents you, it enables you to go under the virtual waters–diving in to achieve highly compelling experiences. Now technology is about to boost that immersion. Shahriar Afshar, a visiting physics research professor at Rowan University in New Jersey, has developed what he terms ‘emotional surround sound’: ” the technology, which mimics how the brain responds to real stimulation, can make players feel like they’re being rained on, make them feel they’ve lost their balance or feel G-forces from quick movements.”
5. A life coach. Using video capture of your likeness which is then modeled and placed on an avatar, you can introduce new behaviors and reinforce positive routines. Researcher Jesse Fox of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab 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. After watching their “reflection” in a virtual mirror, people mentally inhabit this avatar at some level, regardless of its sex, race or appearance. In several studies, for instance, researchers have shown that white people who spend time interacting virtually as black avatars become less anxious about racial differences.
6. An extension of your five senses. Jeremy Bailenson of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab says in the Frontline Digital Nation documentary: “The first time we ran the study [of subjects watching their avatar eat], subjects would report being sick, feeling full, really changing their physiology. We’re not wired to differentiate experiences like this one [watching your avatar eat in a virtual world] from actual eating. Digital stuff is such a new phenomenon, if it looks real and feels real and smells real, the brain tells us it’s real.”
7. A better version of you. According to Jane McGonigal of the Institute for the Future, we spend three billion hours a week playing online games. McGonigal’s research shows that many people play games because they feel “I’m not good at life.” But in games you can choose to be a version of you–an avatar–that is stronger, more beautiful or handsome, a different body size and shape. As other researchers have found, this better version of ourselves can be used to change behaviors or to feel better about ourselves generally. Of course as Sharon Begley reported in Newsweek, this versioning of ourselves can be a two-edged sword: “players who roamed a virtual world as a KKK-clad avatar felt more aggressive than they did before playing the game, while those whose avatar wore a doctor’s coat scored higher on a test of friendliness.”
8. A change agent for how you think and act. Again, evidence from the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab: Using modeling graphic software, researchers create an avatar, a three-dimensional digital representation of the user. Then the researcher cues up an appropriate setting for reaching a goal. If the user is looking to lose weight, that setting might be a gym. On a screen inside a VR (virtual reality) helmet, the user can view himself from a third-person perspective while his avatar behaves autonomously, or he can view the world from the avatar’s eyes, controlling the avatar’s movements.
“In the physical world, we take cues from examining ourselves all the time. For example, a glance in the mirror can confirm we are ‘dressed for success,’ ” Jeremy Bailenson says. “In the virtual world, we can extend this idea to examining the self as it performs activities we cannot yet do on a personal level in the physical world, whether it’s eating healthily, investing our money instead of wasting it, or even having the perfect golf swing.”
This phenomenon is what Bailenson calls “vicarious reinforcement.” Apparently this works because we to believe that our goals are attainable by seeing them played out on-screen. Researchers at Stanford have performed numerous studies to examine the effects of virtual lives on users. In a weight-loss study, subjects whose avatars worked out and lost weight also worked out more over a 24- hour period than they had before and were more likely to skip fattening foods.
9. A teaching tool. While cleanup efforts continue for the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, students in more than 750 high schools across the country are assuming avatars in an elaborate teaching video game called “Spill.” The students as avatars help to organize and manage the cleanup for the mayor of New City. According to Winnie Hu who reported on avatars in schools for The New York Times: “Teachers and students say the use of avatars and virtual worlds in classes from health to economics pulls in even reluctant learners, and encourages problem-solving and higher-order thinking as classroom knowledge is applied to real-life situations.”
10. Lucid dreaming. A kind of body swapping, this meme presents an avatar as your identity in–even your entree into–another world. This is what happens in the movie, Avatar, where Jake Sully and other characters slip inside a coffin-like sleeping pod and then are freed from any bodily limitations (Jake, for example, has a war injury that left him unable to use his legs). While this may be the most fantastic of all the new avatar narratives, it is also undoubtedly the most compelling.
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