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Do our virtual avatars and spaces change the way we behave?

A new university study out of Stanford would suggest so

A new study out of Stanford University has analysed how the choice of virtual environments and avatars in the metaverse can alter users’ behaviours and promote positive psychosocial outcomes.

Part of the appeal of metaverse titles – and even being online – is the freedom it brings; you can interact with someone from the other side of the world, dress in a wardrobe that perhaps in real life you wouldn’t have the means or confidence to. In this latest study from Stanford University, researchers looked into how this freedom to choose the environments you socialise in and the avatar you use has an impact on social interactions.

For this study, 272 students used VR headsets to meet in virtual environments for 30 minutes once a week for eight weeks. During these 30-minute sessions, each of the students participated in two experiments. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of minutes of interaction for the researchers to then analyse.

Virtual Environments

One of the experiments focused on the effects of where the students were interacting. This varied across multiple digital spaces. In this experiment, the students would interact in a virtual environment both indoors and outdoors. The researchers created 192 unique environments which each had its own attributes. These spaces would vary from the likes of a train car to enclosed arenas and walled gardens or endless fields.

Research showed that when the students would socialise in wide open virtual spaces, be it indoors or outdoors their verbal synchrony seemed greater, there was also an increase in group cohesion, pleasure, arousal, presence, and enjoyment in contrast to the students who were interacting in more confined surroundings.

The study also showed that outdoor environments where elements of nature were present would create a more positive feeling. It would seem from the research that more wide open spaces had a positive impact on the student’s interactions and behaviours. Outdoor spaces with nature and greenery also seem to be favoured over smaller indoor areas.

Professor Jeremy Bailenson commented that, “At the very core of collaboration is people attending and reacting to one another in a productive manner. Our data show that all these great downstream things happen when you make your virtual rooms huge compared to a traditional office space.” 

Who we are in virtual worlds

The second experiment was focused not on the where, but on who. This research assessed the effects of how the students chose to present themselves as avatars and how those variations impacted their interactions. 

In this experiment, students would be able to interact as self-avatars, which resembled the individual’s actual real-world appearance. Or, a generic avatar that looked and dressed the same as other avatars. 

The study found that when students were represented by avatars that looked similar to their real-world selves, they displayed more non-verbal synchrony, this means that students would gesture similarly to each other. Students reported that they felt more in sync with themselves and with each other when congregating and interacting as self-avatars. However, when interacting as generic avatars, the students felt that the experience could be quite freeing with study lead Eugy Han commenting that “People enjoyed being in generic avatars stripped of all identity. On the other hand, when represented by self-avatars, the students reported feeling more active and engaged.”

Study takeaways

The final findings that were gathered from the research data found that for more productive and collaborative interactions, for example, a professional or workplace environment. Self-avatars would be the preferred option. When you are conducting business or working, users want to look like themselves. 

The study also shows that VR has great potential for an insightful space to conduct psychological studies. This is due to the fact that it removed the real-world restrictions of what spaces can be used and even cut on costs compared to what some real-world studies would require. 

Bailenson commented on this saying, “In the history of social science, there are very few studies on the psychological effect of huge indoor spaces, for the obvious reason that it is, for example, very expensive to rent out Madison Square Garden to run a four-person meeting. But in VR, the cost goes away, and one of the more compelling findings from our study is that huge indoor spaces have much of the same redeeming psychological value of being outdoors.” 

Future thoughts

The findings of this study are interesting. Having the ability to strip away your identity can be freeing, but you also lose a sense of self and therefore may interact differently. Open spaces are usually more relaxing than that of smaller confined ones and this research shows that even in a virtual space this still holds true. 

An interesting concept to take this particular study one step further would be the inclusion of customisable avatars. Would more users create an avatar that represents their true self, or would they create an avatar they simply feel is cool or one that represents how the real person ‘wishes’ they looked. Would a user that is shy when in an avatar that resembled themselves be more confident and forward in an avatar that they have been able to customise to be their ideal vision of themselves. 

We are sure it’s only a matter of time until these ideas are explored. With data like this future metaverse and virtual experiences can learn and implement these capabilities to create immersive worlds where users feel comfortable, in whatever form, to explore and meet new people.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash.

Written By

Paige Cook is a writer with a multi-media background. She has experience covering video games and technology and also has freelance experience in video editing, graphic design, and photography. Paige is a massive fan of the movie industry and loves a good TV show, if she is not watching something interesting then she's probably playing video games or buried in a good book. Her latest addiction is virtual photography and currently spends far too much time taking pretty pictures in games rather than actually finishing them.

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