Watching the MUVEs
Recently, psychologists have been getting quite excited about multi-user virtual environments. Several studies have drawn the same conclusion: that people behave similarly in virtual worlds using avatars as they do in real life. Yee et al (2007) showed that the closer two avatars were together, the less they faced each other directly, and 'eye contact' was reduced. They also reported that two characters of the same gender kept greater distance than two characters of opposite genders. Friedman and his colleagues (2007) found that a robot avatar that was programmed to walk up to people in Second Life caused them to back away to maintain some kind of personal space. Others have discovered that real world group processes such as persuasion and influence can also work similarly in virtual worlds. Eastwick and Gardner (2009) have even detected elements of racist and other distasteful behaviours in MUVEs. Anything it seems, that happens in real life, can be found also in Second Life and other 3D avatar driven environments.
Christian Jarrett, writing in the June edition of The Psychologist (a British Psychological Society Journal) documents these and similar studies to show why psychologists are getting excited about MUVEs. He says 'The fact that people behave in virtual worlds in a way that reflects real life is exciting news for psychologists because it opens up the medium as a way of conducting large-scale social studies with relevance to the real world - projects that might otherwise be impossible or prohibitively expensive to conduct.
Jarrett makes an interesting distinction between Second Life and some of the more popular MUVEs such as World of Warcraft. WoW has game objectives he points out. This may be the reason it has so many more adherents than the somewhat sterile and therefore underpopulated Second Life. Well I wish him and his colleagues a lot of luck. They may have to wait some time to meet up with an avatar in the ghost town that Second Life is becoming.
Eastwick, P. W. and Gardner, W. L. (2009) Is it a game? Evidence for social influence in the virtual world. Social Influence, 4, 18-32.
Friedman, D., Steed, A. and Slater, M. (2007) Spatial social behaviour in Second Life. In C. Pelachaud (Ed.) Intelligent Virtual Agents 2007, Berlin: Springer-Verlag.
Jarrett, C. (2009) Get a Second Life. The Psychologist, 22 (6), 490-493.
Yee, N., Bailenson, J. N., Urbanek, M., Chang, F. and Merget, D. (2007) The unbearable likeness of being digital: The persistence of nonverbal social norms in online virtual environments. Cyberpsychology and Behaviour, 10 (1), 115-121.