I can’t for the life of me remember the first avatar I ever made. It might have been for Xbox, taking great pleasure at all the personalisations that were available… and never quite evolving to full, quality use of them. Even as someone who wasn’t a gamer, I wanted to make sure my avatar was somehow me; even when very young I understood that there was a huge amount of value here. The more important the community or platform in which your avatar lives, the more important the avatar. It’s how you exist in this world, so surely it matters? Even when avatars were very modest representations of self and you were only able to change the colour of their t-shirt or their nickname, the fact you were infusing them with scores made them relevant. The fact they opened up the possibilities for chat and interaction made them even more so.
These days an avatar can look like you, behave like you, and - increasingly - spend just like you, if not more. The exciting developments in the world of metaverse and its citizens - the avatars - made me want to review the research, and explore the exciting possibilities and trends within this space.
“People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do,
but they stay for all the things they can be.” (Ready Player One)
Avatars were, arguably, always interesting. The fact you existed with some kind of a representation in a digital world implied a connection to the player, even before research backed it up. They influence not only how you function within a digital world - as avatars can and sometimes do influence ‘power’ and functionality - but also how you are perceived. This stretches from a purely physical standpoint, i.e. what your avatar looks like, to behavioural traits too. In certain universes, for example, only committed players gain access to specific skins or features, so then when people see your avatar, they know you are the real deal and not someone who just paid their way to a certain level or a certain appearance.
These days, with the development of the metaverse in particular, the possibilities with avatars are just increasing, and the closer we get to their “self-actualisation”, the more important they will be. When I say metaverse you may think of Fortnite or Roblox, but in reality they are just the first steps. The true ‘vision’ of the metaverse goes far beyond gameplay, and involves entertainment, fashion, health and fitness - even work - all in one universe or in a set of highly-connected spaces. In other words, it’s not just for kids and gamers.
Is it an alternative world? It is, in some ways - but this needn’t be a scary thought, we needn’t inhabit it fully, and we (unless things go very wrong!) won’t do so exclusively. But it is an alternative world to take note of, and understand its dynamics.
“Avatar is very important...It's whatever we can imagine.” - Roblox founder and CEO, David Baszucki
It’s almost difficult to overstate some of the amazing connections between a self (real self, that is) and the avatar - the different dynamics of this connection are subject to much research interest, and we’re only just scratching the surface of the impact it may have on behaviour and attitude formation.
So firstly, what kind of avatars are people most likely to create? Well, according to Nick Yee, a former research scientist at Palo Alto Research Center, most create idealised versions of themselves, minimising what they consider to be flaws (Game Informer).
Once this avatar is made, studies show that people unconsciously conform to its physical traits - a phenomenon named the Proteus effect, after the shape shifting Greek god. As such, taller avatars engage in more aggressive negotiations than shorter ones (Yee, Bailenson, & Ducheneaut, 2009), and more muscular male avatars evidenced a higher real-life grip strength (Kocur, Kloss, Schwind, Wolff, & Henze, 2020). Fascinating! Similarly, a more ‘attractive’ avatar behaves in one way, compared to another that is - by some standards - less so. Psychology of Games describes an experiment in which people were assigned avatars of different attractiveness and then asked to speak to others: people assigned attractive looks both stood closer to the other person, and disclosed more personal information.
Other studies show that the more similar the avatar is to you, the more likely you are to protect it in a gaming scenario. Gorisse, Christmann, Houzangbe, and Richir (2019) conducted a study where participants controlled three avatars using a third-person perspective: a robot, a suit, and their virtual lookalike. Dissimilarities allowed the users to adopt more risky behaviours, while self-representations encouraged users to preserve themselves. Pardon, their avatar. Of course, in gaming, this isn’t always a good thing - sometimes a game is improved by a bit of risk taking! As such, other research shows that players prefer dissimilar avatars in competitive games and similar avatars in non-competitive games (Trepte and Reinecke, 2010).
This personal connection between a user and their avatar has many implications, and as mentioned, we are still exploring the opportunities this presents. For example, the role play mechanic that avatars embody has been positively used to train and impact behaviour or help through a challenging situation. Morgan et al. (2020) describe how trans and gender diverse young people used avatars to explore, develop and rehearse their experienced gender identities, often as a precursor to coming out in the offline world. On the positive side of things, there was an opportunity, an arguably safe space in which to explore and stretch your identity. But - on the other hand - even this space isn’t always safe. The same young people in the study also noted negative experiences arising from the fact that conventional concepts of gender are often just replicated in avatar design, and have asked for better customisation.
Beyond this kind of use, psychologists and psychiatrists have used avatars and mental visualisations as a technique for treating phobias and social disorders. Someone terribly afraid of swimming might have an opportunity to expose their avatar to swimming and work through their issue via this “imaginary” exposure. Research shows we can be encouraged to adopt new and beneficial behaviours by watching others perform them, and the more similar these ‘others’ are to us, the higher the impact. With avatars being increasingly similar, or at least able to be, we have the technology to show people their likeness exercising, living well, and explore the impact this has on real life lifestyle.
“If anything, it’s just a flex.” - Instagram commenter
But has all this made it sound like avatars are out there, in the gaming world, improving themselves and engaging in growth behaviors exclusively? I mean - sure - but they are not an improvement on real life humans. And just as our real versions live in a consumerist society, so do our digital ones. As such, it is important we get to grips with ‘direct to avatars' commerce - a business model all about meeting the demands of digital identities / digital people. The products in the D2A commerce would be sold within the virtual economies - gaming, communities, open worlds - and bypass a lot of the logistics involved with… well, with reality. For the gaming industry, this model has been around for years and is nothing new. But it’s only now entering the mainstream.
You’ll be hearing stories such as League of Legends earning $1.5 billion from skins, or Fortnite generating $1 billion in the same way. More recently, Gucci collaborated with Roblox to create a “virtual garden”, and perhaps, surreally, a digital Gucci Dionysus bag sold for $4,115, which is more than the $3,400 price tag of its real life counterpart.
How do you feel about the value of this? Is it too much to pay for something which doesn’t exist in the real world? Or is it too little for something that is, arguably, unique to the digital you? I’ve pasted some of the conversations on Instagram around this as I think they show an interesting discussion regarding value: it could come from so many places, like utility, uniqueness, social status, community benefit, and more.
Keeping it real
Broadly speaking, you can expect avatars to keep getting better and smarter, more inter-operable, i.e. working across different platforms.
Facebook & Oculus - who already have the ability to create fairly faithful avatars to the level where they blink at a certain speed - will be focusing on making them more faithful, more ‘present’. Mark Zuckerberg recently talked about eye tracking in an interview with The Information, saying, “One of the things that I’m really excited about for future versions is getting eye tracking and face tracking in, because if you’re really excited about social presence, you want to make sure that the device has all the sensors to really kind of animate realistic avatars so you can communicate well like that.”
These improvements on the ‘presence’ and fidelity of avatars will, over time, help us feel more invested in them and as such be able to or interested in doing more with them. I also don’t want to make it sound as if the “just like me” avatars are the only ones receiving attention, as fantasy avatars, pushing the boundaries of physics, will also continue to have a huge role to play, both in gaming and in community work. One of the greatest things about the digital world is that it can, and does, push the boundaries of reality. So, as the line that separates the physical and digital worlds continues to blur - what else can I say, but see you in the metaverse!