Research Spotlight: What it means to be an avatar

Dallas Hall in Second LifeAvatars have taken on a whole new level of popularity. Even before the Na’vi and the U.S. armed forces battled it out in the “Avatar” movie, internet users increasingly found themselves identifying with two- and three-dimensional virtual representations.

New research by Ulrike Schultze, associate professor of information technology and operations management in SMU’s Cox School of Business, delves into what is most fundamental to the avatar-self relationship in a study of residents of Second Life, the most successful and accessible virtual world.

Such virtual worlds are fascinating to study because they are rich and immersive communication environments that bring together text, voice and graphics – as well as sound and video streaming – in a shared virtual space, Schultze says. Yet despite these technologies’ infinite possibilities, businesses and educational institutions are still trying to figure out how to leverage them effectively.

The “killer app” for serious users has remained somewhat elusive. Around 2006, companies like American Apparel, Wells Fargo and Starwood Hotels & Resorts made significant investments in Second Life, only to defect a year or two later because of a lack of “pull-through from their presence in Second Life to real-life revenues,” says Schultze. These business disappointments have led many businesses to write off virtual worlds as either “before their time” or “purely social.”

But Schultze argues that understanding the relationship between the real person at the computer and their avatar is a fundamental starting place for creating business- and education-related applications in virtual worlds. The avatar – a graphical representation that defines one’s presence in the online world – “gives us a body for online communication,” Schultze says.

For some, the avatar represents a part of them – for example, their business side. For others, their avatar reflects their aspirations – themselves, but more confident and assertive. Yet others view their avatar as their truer self – the person that would emerge if social stigmas associated with weight, race or physical disabilities were removed.

Virtual workplace in Second LifeThe notion that “the avatar is me, but not quite me” creates a number of opportunities and challenges, Schultze says. For example, simulations and role-play are generally accepted as effective learning strategies. Sales training frequently includes rehearsing an elevator pitch or simulating an encounter with an irate customer. However, people are often too self-conscious to step fully into a real-life role-playing scenario. With an avatar, the role player is already one step removed from the real-life self and situation, making it easier to transition into a role.

In addition, the avatar enables reflection as the player can watch his or her behavior from a distance. “Lessons learned from the role-play can be readily incorporated into real-life learning. But the lessons of the role-play can also be rejected based on the notion that the avatar is not quite me,” Schultze adds.

She further cautions, “That the avatar is not quite me also means that you can deny actions or activities that you would consider morally questionable in real life – for example, infidelity. For someone who is married in real life, is having an intimate relationship in Second Life cheating or just fantasy?”

The ambiguity surrounding the avatar-self relationship allows us to draw boundaries between the self and the avatar, between reality and fantasy, and between work and play dynamically and strategically, Schultze says. “When it comes to emotions that arise from events in Second Life, those tend to flow right through to real life. People tend to have a hard time filtering them out.”

Written by Jennifer Warren

(Above, a representation of Dallas Hall developed for the SMU “island” in Second Life; avatars interact in a virtual workplace.)

Read more from the Cox School research blog
Previously in SMU Forum: Virtual reality, real communication