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Avatar Psychology

Abstract and Keywords

The explosive growth and dissemination of internetworking technology has changed what we may consider community, culture, and society. A major part of this movement toward the virtual is the use of self-representative avatars. Studies have demonstrated that interactions between humans while they are embodied in avatars have distinct psychological implications both for the user and for others who may interact with the virtual representation. Social scientists are beginning to study avatars as a way of understanding people. This chapter explores research on the effects of human avatar interaction as well as effects found to occur when people interact via technology-mediated environments. It will cover the concepts of presence (the feeling of being there) and social presence (the feeling that others are there as well) and detail the theories of transformed social interaction and the social influence model. Several practical applications and examples will be discussed as well.

Keywords: avatars, presence, social presence, self-representation, virtual reality, transformed social interaction, social influence model, community, culture, society

Avatar Psychology

The digital information age has arrived. In the year of this publication, the population of planet earth is projected to hit 7 billion.1 At the same time, the number of Internet users is estimated to be well over 2 billion.2 The percentage of the total population on the Internet varies from region to region, with Africa around 11 percent penetration and North America just below 80 percent penetration. Yet these numbers suggest significant portions of the planet’s population (somewhere around 30 percent) are Internet users. The variety of internetworking applications in use is difficult to quantify, but one thing is clear: For many, the Internet has become a primary mode of communication internationally.

The explosive growth and dissemination of internetworking technology has changed the commonly accepted definition of community. In 1993, Rheingold wrote about how electronically mediated social interactions had very real effects on his life (Rheingold 1993). Rheingold reflects on his experience: “My mind, however, is linked with a worldwide collection of like-minded (and not so like-minded) souls: My virtual community” (57). Rheingold went further, suggesting that participation in a virtual community had a very real psychological effect. He states: “We do everything people do when people get together, but we do it with words on computer screens, leaving our bodies behind” (58). Sánchez-Segura and colleagues later extended the idea of virtual community to a far more inclusive virtual society:

Now there are groups which are joined across the distance with the aim of “interacting,” groups formed by people born within different environments, but now joined in another one in which they form a new society called “virtual society,” where they can develop a new and different lifestyle.

(Sánchez-Segura et al. 1998, 1)

(p. 130) Combine this with the fact that media use in younger populations has far exceeded any previous generation (Rideout, Foehr, and Roberts 2010) and it becomes clear that the culture of Internet use is spreading irrepressibly.

As more and more people have begun using digital media to meet their need for social interaction, an increasing number of new applications has been designed to keep up with the generated demand. This has led to the creation of a variety of novel ways to represent oneself during the ensuing social interactions that take place in virtual places. The challenge of unique digital representation has led to the proliferation of particular forms of individual embodiment. Graphical forms of online representation have become known as avatars. Avatars can range from very simple images, to still-frame photos (aka profile picture), to complex animated 3D forms frequently anthropomorphized, that is, made to appear roughly human. The anthropomorphized avatar will be the subject of focus for this chapter.

It has become clear that the use of avatars in everyday life and in the workplace will continue to expand as the global network is built out. In the book Infinite Reality, Blascovich and Bailenson also describe this trend as “spreading virally”:

People interact via digital stimuli more and more. According to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids spend eight hours per day on average outside of the classroom using digital media. This translates to billions of hours per week….In the world of online games and virtual worlds, millions of players spend over twenty hours each week “wearing” avatars, digital representations of themselves….Household “console” video arenas, especially games, in which people control and occupy avatars, consume more hours per day for kids than movies and print media combined. To borrow a term from the new vernacular, virtual experiences are spreading virally.

(Blascovich and Bailenson 2011, 2)

Studies have demonstrated that interactions between humans while they are embodied in avatars have distinct psychological implications. Academic research is increasingly focused on exploring these effects because evidence suggests that the use of avatars could profoundly alter our social behaviors and work performance—for better or worse (Bailenson and Blascovich 2011). Behavioral changes that are caused by avatars have been demonstrated to include both immediate adaptive changes (Yee and Bailenson 2007) and longitudinal changes that can be measured over time (Fox and Bailenson 2009).

Using technology to mediate social communication has been theorized to change the way we perceive our own identity and the identity of others. In the book Identity Shift: Where Identity Meets Technology in the Networked-Community Age, Cerra and James (2011) explore how the proliferation of networking technology has impacted both an individual’s perception of his or her own identity and the perception of others’ identities. One particularly relevant thesis discussed in the book is the closing of the gap between personal life and professional life. In one example, the authors demonstrate how having a Facebook account can affect the chances of getting a job. Facebook activity has traditionally been considered a personal space. Yet employers now routinely (p. 131) research job applicants’ Internet presence to get a feel for what type of person an applicant might be in the workplace.

Research has also established the effect of digital representation on the individual. In one series of studies, the appearance and behavior of an avatar has been demonstrated to have immediate effects on the behavior of the user. Deeming it the Proteus effect, Yee and Bailenson (2007) produced a variety of behavioral effects by altering the height and attractiveness of a user’s avatar. This is but one example of the growing body of research on the effect of virtual identity on physical behaviors.

What Does It Mean to Have an Avatar?

Avatars, a word once uttered only by hardcore gamers and science fiction fans, have begun to make their way into living rooms across the world. Their infiltration into our everyday lives has grown from a subtle trend to a suddenly marked phenomenon (Ahn, Fox, and Bailenson 2011).

In mythology, the term “avatar” is used to describe what happens when an ethereal deity embodies its heavenly essence to visit the material world. When deities had a desire to walk among the people or visit a world they had created, they would instantiate their essence into a physical body. In order to experience life from the perspective of the local inhabitants, the received avatar would typically look and act very similar to the people who populated the world. Doing so would allow the deity to experience life as it was for mortal man.

James Cameron’s movie Avatar features a type of avatar similar to the mythological definition. In the film, a military veteran (Jake Sully) has suffered a combat injury limiting the use of his legs. By transferring his consciousness to the avatar body, Jake becomes captivated by the renewed ability to use “his legs” again. Yet in the process of learning to use the avatar body, Jake gradually becomes the avatar in essence. In this narrative, the more Jake experiences the world through his avatar, the stronger his emotional connection with the avatar body becomes. At the same time, his cognitive connection with his own body begins to deteriorate. While merely a fictional illustration of the user-avatar relationship, this example illuminates potential effects on cognition, emotion, and perception that continued development of avatar technology may have on humans.

It is important to note that effects generated by digital representation vary significantly between the human-controlled avatar and the programmatically controlled embodied computer agent. In both instances, the graphical display a user sees may be identical. Both avatars and agents have become very anthropomorphically human. Both versions feature highly realistic behaviors. Each has the ability to respond to their environment and to the user. Yet people respond very differently to representations they know to be avatars than to agents, even when the difference is based entirely on the subject’s perception. In a series of studies comparing subjects’ responses to other virtual people, it was found that “players exhibited greater physiological arousal to otherwise identical interactions when other characters were introduced as an avatar rather than an agent” (Lim (p. 132) and Reeves 2010, 57). The net result of this finding is that avatars that represent humans are more emotionally and psychologically interesting to other people than automated agents appear to be. While the cognitive and emotional implications of interacting with automatons and embodied agents are of great interest psychologically, this chapter will focus on the relationship and effects that occur between humans and avatars.

Social scientists are beginning to study avatars as a way of understanding people. There are now several academic research institutes and departments that are dedicated to the study of human interaction with the virtual. Universities all over the world, including Oxford, Stanford, Cypress, and Toronto, have groups dedicated to exploring the psychological effects of virtual reality on humans. Their collective hope is to leverage emerging technology to improve research methods and to study phenomena, such as nonverbal behavior and social interaction, that have traditionally been difficult to study in a physical setting (Fox, Arena, and Bailenson 2009).

With the massive increase in virtual-world use and immersive gaming, academic and commercial interest in VR research continues to grow. Virtual reality researchers have demonstrated the utility of virtual reality for social science and the inherent benefits of VR technology for doing laboratory research in general. Immersive virtual environment technology (IVET) uses technology to perceptually surround a person with a digital environment such that the subject feels “inside” a virtual world with avatars. IVET has been advocated to ameliorate, if not solve, methodological research problems and, thus, holds promise as the new social psychological research tool (Blascovich et al. 2002). Among the motivations for developing VR technology is the ability for humans to interact without the constraints of the physical world, for example being able to change body shape, color, and even species (Lanier 1992). At the time of Lanier’s original publication, practical VR existed only in the laboratories of a few scientific visionaries. Today, the application of VR technology to everyday problems in business (e.g., distributed team coordination) and medicine (e.g., physical rehabilitation) has become increasingly commonplace. A few practical applications are detailed at the end of this chapter.

Historically, advancements in communication media technology have expanded humans’ ability to make contact with others, physically or virtually, in ever more ways (Turkle 1985; Turkle 1995; Rheingold 1993). As virtual representation increases in popularity and utility, it has become important to understand how using avatars changes people. Today, both scientists and citizens, for example concerned parents, question how virtual reality is affecting life as we know it.

The question remains: exactly how does use of an avatar as a representation of the self during increasingly real social interactions in virtual spaces affect the individual and one’s perception of selfhood? The emerging answer is surprisingly complex and frequently contrary to intuition. For example, one study suggests that in high-use situations, users’ neural activation patterns indicating emotional connection with their avatars have been measured as roughly equal to the neural patterns indicating emotional connection with their biological selves (Ganesh et al. 2012). While this is merely one example of a specific effect, a growing body of research has begun to reveal a range of very real psychological and physiological implications of avatar use. This chapter will (p. 133) explore research on the effects of human-avatar interaction as well as effects found to occur when people interact via technology-mediated environments. The following sections will outline effects on individuals, social interactions, and then provide several exemplars of beneficial avatar use.

Individual Effects: Spatial Presence and Self-Presence

Spatial Presence

Spatial presence is the feeling of being there.

Emerging technologies including virtual reality, simulation rides, videoconferencing, home theater, and high-definition television are designed to provide media users with an illusion that a mediated experience is not mediated (Lombard and Ditton 1997). These technologies are designed for both distraction and practical utility. Most popular examples are of the entertainment variety. For example, riding an immersive ride such as Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean, at a popular amusement park provides stimulation to the physiological senses. There are visuals in the form of pirates doing what pirates do best (looting and pillaging), audible music and singing (“Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me!”), olfactory simulation of gunpowder and burning buildings, and the feel of water splashing on one’s face as the floating carriage moves from one display to another. Yet physical simulation is not the only method for immersion. In an article for the American Journal of Bioethics, Schaefer writes, “James Cameron’s new film Avatar is, at its core, a visual experience. It engages audiences with swooping shots of luscious vegetation from an imaginary world, its characters confront and are confounded by all manner of wondrous beasts and it culminates in rousing battle scenes which are meant to thrill and delight—and in 3D, to boot” (Schaefer 2010, 68). These effects in general have become known as presence or the feeling of “being there” (see also Riva and Waterworth, chapter 12, and Calleja, chapter 13, both in this volume).

The idea of presence can be thought of as the experience of one’s physical environment; it refers not to one’s surroundings as they exist in the physical world, but to the perception of those surroundings as mediated by both automatic and controlled mental processes (Gibson 1986). This description refers to the focus of one’s perception and cognition during virtual experiences. When one enters a virtual environment by donning a head-mounted display or starting up a favorite immersive video game, one’s senses become focused on the virtual environment. When perception is mediated by a communication technology, one is forced to perceive two separate environments simultaneously: the physical environment in which one is actually present; and the environment presented via the medium (Steuer 1992). (p. 134)

Elements that define virtual reality such as vividness and interactivity influence the degree of spatial presence (Steuer 1992). Vividness refers to the ability of a technology to produce a sensorially rich mediated environment. This includes stimulation of any combination of the perceptual senses, as well as elements such as range and vibrancy of colors, depth of audio or music, and the ability to draw one into the presented environment. Interactivity refers to the degree to which users of a medium can influence the form or content of the mediated environment. This includes both the ability of the environment to respond to user input (responsiveness) and the ability of the user to respond to the environment (interaction). Interactivity has also been defined by other scholars with reference to functionality, or the degree of multimodality, and contingency, or the degree to which interactions are based on previous interactions (Sundar, Kalyanaraman, and Brown 2003). Higher degrees of vividness and interactivity can cause users to become more involved in the delivered content, provided the content is of relevance to the user.

There are several other key factors affecting the level of spatial presence virtual environments can produce. Elements such as the ability to represent oneself within the environment, ease of use, engaging narrative, and frequent real-time feedback rank high among the many factors that can affect presence. Each of these elements can add depth to virtual experiences, making them increasingly engaging.

The ability to represent oneself within the media makes the experience more personally relevant (Reeves and Read 2010). Additionally, the ability to customize one’s avatar can affect both subjective feelings of presence and psychophysiological indicators of emotion during the virtual experience (Bailey, Wise, and Bolls 2009).

Ease of use can reduce the barriers to entry for a virtual environment, making it feel more “user friendly.” Natural mapping of form to function makes avatar use in 3D environments easy and familiar (Norman 2002). For instance, using a joystick to “drive” an avatar represents a far lower cognitive load than mapping movement to keys on a crowded keyboard. Presumably, as the ability to track avatars more naturally increases, for example using computer vision algorithms that can track body movements, the naturalness will improve considerably.

Leveraging a compelling narrative can also increase levels of spatial presence. The ability to interact with a vivid narrative, unconstrained by ordinary life, can increase engagement in presented content (Crawford 2004). This technique was applied to help children learn about ecosystems in the NICE project (Roussos et al. 1997). In this project, children constructed and cultivated simple virtual ecosystems, collaborated via networks with other remotely located children, and created stories from their interactions in the real and virtual worlds. The element of narrative construction helped children become engaged in a topic that would otherwise be uninteresting to them. In her book on the power of storytelling, Simmons states: “When you want to influence others, there is no tool more powerful than story” (Simmons 2006, 29).

High levels of feedback, especially in real time, provide a powerful mechanism for behavior change. The concept of feedback has a long history in the study of psychology and behavior change (Skinner 1958). Real-time feedback causes the human brain to adapt to changing circumstances more rapidly and with increased precision. For (p. 135) example, Welch and colleagues demonstrated that providing high levels of feedback via computer while teaching children to sing improved speed and accuracy of vocal pitch production (Welch, Howard, and Rush 1989).

When spatial presence is achieved, it mediates the effects generated by virtual experiences. Biocca and colleagues conducted a series of studies evaluating the effects of 3D advertising. In one study, subjects were either shown a normal product video or were allowed to interact with 3D images of the featured product. Interaction with 3D versions of a product was hypothesized to increase subject presence. The results of the study demonstrated that increasing the level of interaction increased self-reported presence and enhanced product knowledge, brand attitude, and purchase intention (Li, Daugherty, and Biocca 2002). Hence, personal involvement in virtual experiences can amplify the effectiveness of a simulation.

Self-Presence

Self-presence is the feeling that my avatar is me.

Using an interactive virtual environment (IVE) or playing an interactive video game that requires the use of avatars adds the element of self-presence. Self-presence is defined as “a psychological state in which virtual (para-authentic or artificial) self/selves are experienced as the actual self in either sensory or nonsensory ways” (Lee 2004, 37). In essence, self-presence is the feeling that one’s avatar is more than a mechanism to interact with the virtual environment. It is an extension of the self.

Avatars are not all created equal. Research has shown that many factors affect the cognitive connection or sense of identification between user and avatar. The ability to personalize an avatar can cause a significant bond between users and their representation (Ratan 2012). In one study, it was found that customizing an avatar caused users’ heart rate to increase as much as 10 percent over avatars that were assigned (Lim and Reeves 2009).

Higher levels of self-presence will increase engagement in virtual experiences, but there are other more subtle effects that can occur as well. A number of additional consequences of using avatars have been identified through laboratory research. Yee and colleagues conducted a series of experiments designed to explore the effects of avatar appearance and behavior on their users. The result has become known as the Proteus effect (Yee and Bailenson 2007).

The Proteus effect suggests that an individual’s behavior conforms to his or her digital self-representation. In laboratory studies, subjects who used more attractive avatars were more intimate with confederates than those who used less attractive avatars, and those who used tall avatars negotiated more aggressively than those who used short ones. In a similar line of research, Groom and colleagues found that people embodied by black avatars in a laboratory VR environment demonstrated greater implicit racial bias outside the virtual environment than people embodied by white avatars (Groom, Bailenson, and Nass 2009). (p. 136)

Other lines of avatar study have extended effects identified in this research. Fox and colleagues found that simulating positive health results through an avatar similar in appearance to the user increased healthy exercise behaviors over time (Fox and Bailenson 2009). In a study designed to explore the psychological impact of avatar appearance, Nowak and Rauh identified several important implications of avatar appearance by having subjects evaluate images of avatars. Through the evaluation process, it was found that gender, attractiveness, and level of anthropomorphism significantly influenced subjects’ perception of avatars. Avatars that appeared more human were perceived to be more credible and attractive, and subjects were more likely to choose to be represented by them (Nowak and Rauh 2005). However, as described by the hypothetical “Uncanny Valley” (Mori 1970), extreme levels of avatar realism can heighten sensitivity to cues of falsehood (Brenton et al. 2005) and can cause users to become uncomfortable when interacting with the representation (MacDorman et al. 2009; see also Tinwell, chapter 10 in this volume). Taken together, results suggest that a user’s perception of an avatar extends well beyond the avatar itself.

Gaming experts have theorized that maintaining personal relationships through avatar use can also intensify the effects. In a book dedicated to the effects of avatar use on real life, T. L. Taylor (2006) suggests, when things happen to my avatar they also happen to me (4–5). Taylor reports, through multiple examples and anecdotes, the effects of “having an avatar” extend well outside the virtual environment. For example, EverQuest and World of Warcraft players who attend player “meet-ups” tend to identify themselves using their avatar names rather than their given names. Instead of informing virtual friends and acquaintances of their real identity (“Hi, my name is Fred, I play an elf”), players tend to extend the role-play aspects of their favorite game to real interactions (“Hi, Mordock! I’m Farkle, the elf!”). This is one of many real-life experiences detailed by Taylor that have been echoed throughout the MMORPG community. As the use of avatars alters the individual, it also mediates social interaction.

Social Effects: Social Presence, the Social Influence Model, and Transformed Social Interaction

Social Presence

Social presence is the degree to which users feel that others are there as well.

As virtual experiences and avatar use cause a variety of effects on individual users, they affect social experiences mediated by virtual environments as well. The perception of other users as being present in the virtual environment has become known as social presence. Social presence occurs when technology users successfully (p. 137) simulate other humans or nonhuman intelligences (Lee 2004; Biocca 1997; Biocca 1999). Successful simulation of other intelligences occurs when technology users do not notice the artificiality of social actors (both human and nonhuman intelligences) (Lee 2004).

The social influence model identifies several characteristics of avatars and virtual environments that impact computer mediated social interactions and increase the utility of collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) (Blascovich 2002). The key factor affecting social influence in the Blascovich model is social verification or copresence. Social verification is the result of the interaction between agency and behavioral realism. In this case, agency is defined as the perception of a virtual representation being associated with a real human. Behavioral realism is defined as the level of realism exhibited in the perceived behavior of a virtual representation.

Other factors that affect social verification are the self-relevance of interactions that occur, the context in which the interaction occurs, and the behavioral response level of the system. Blascovich discusses each of these in some depth in his work on social influence within immersive virtual environments. Self-relevance describes the degree to which interactions are meaningful or important to a particular user. Context refers to the circumstances of the virtual experience and whether there are real consequences such as a virtual job interview versus a simple game. Behavioral response level describes the manner in which social presence is instantiated. For example, if one is measuring a flinch response, then both agents and avatars elicit presence if they charge right at a user in virtual reality (Mennecke et al. 2011). However, if one is measuring a higher-level behavior, such as romantic interest, then avatars are more likely to elicit a response than agents (Lim and Reeves 2010).

Research has illustrated several consequences of avatar use in social interactions. Building on the Proteus effect on individuals, social interactions are also impacted by avatar appearance (Yee and Bailenson 2007). In a series of studies in perceptual psychology, social psychologists Snyder, Tanke, and Berscheid established that unconfirmed perception of appearance in social situations (e.g., neither participant knows what the other truly looks like) can cause significant changes in the behavior of both participants. In one study, subjects participated in a blind social interaction where one of the subjects was shown an arbitrary attractive image and told it was the other subject. In the ensuing conversation, both participants began behaving more flirtatiously. This effect even lasted after the conclusion of the experiment when subjects met in person and were informed of the deception (Snyder, Tanke, and Berscheid 1977). According to this hypothesis, social stereotypes applied to avatars will elicit behavior change in users depending on the appearance of each user’s avatar.

The flexibility of virtual environments to present “reality” in an unconstrained manner brings up an interesting psychological dilemma. The perceptions of individuals involved in social interactions might be entirely different depending on their own perception of events. There is no requirement for each participant to receive the same version of events. While potentially problematic if left to chance, social interactions intentionally transformed represent a powerful mechanism for social influence (p. 138) (Bailenson et al. 2005). This concept has become known as transformed social interaction, or TSI.

The theory behind TSI suggests the imminent flexibility of virtual reality is the perfect medium for leveraging known psychological concepts to enhance both individual and group performance (Bailenson et al. 2008). For example, there is evidence for potential benefits of specific seating locations in a classroom (Montello 1988; Stires 1980). Yet physical reality dictates that only one individual can occupy the “sweet spot” in any given classroom. With the unconstrained nature of the virtual, each participant can be shown his or her avatar occupying that spot in a virtual classroom while simultaneously being shown others’ avatars distributed throughout unoccupied seats and be none the wiser. Further, directed eye gaze from an instructor has proven to increase compliance as well as perception of individual attention (Segrin 1993). The same TSI approach can be applied to allow every participant in a virtual classroom to receive the virtual gaze of the instructor a majority of the time, eliciting performance improvement as well as improving classroom management significantly.

Applications of the Virtual to Affect the Actual

Current Applications

Many fields have begun to exploit VR and immersive video games to achieve results that would otherwise be unavailable or costly. Here are just a few examples of how avatar psychology has been leveraged for commercial applications.

Corporate giants such as Intel, Raytheon, BP, and Hewlett-Packard are now using virtual meeting spaces to reduce costs, allow multiple team interactions in compressed time frames, and foster individual creativity (Reeves, Malone, and O’Driscoll 2008). Providing a level of plasticity in how workers can represent themselves in virtual spaces has resulted in a positive effect on worker productivity rather than suppressing it. Companies are finding that leveraging virtual worlds to affect day-to-day operations offers a level of interaction, both personal and professional, that is not possible over the phone or via videoconferencing, particularly when team members are distributed internationally.3

Facebook has leveraged a simple version of avatars (vivid user profiles) to affect massive changes in social networks. Elements of a typical Facebook user profile are demonstrated to predict both the number of Facebook friends as well as frequency of contact from friends associated with relevant user groups (Lampe, Ellison, and Steinfield 2007). This means that descriptive details of an avatar can also have a significant impact on how the person represented by the avatar is perceived by others.

(p. 139) MMO game companies like Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) and Activision Blizzard (Vivendi SA) have designed a variety of games and virtual worlds like EverQuest and World of Warcraft that allow players to coordinate massively complicated events (Williams et al. 2006). While some of these events feature highly fantastical activities such as killing gigantic virtual dragons or fighting massive virtual armies of enemies, the positive effects on shared attentional focus (the ability to focus on a single shared task for extended periods of time), multiple simultaneous cognition (the ability to track and manage multiple objects on screen simultaneously), and audio-spatial tracking (the ability to identify where a specific noise is coming from in 3D) have been well documented (Dye, Green, and Bavelier 2009; Honda et al. 2007). Additionally, experiences in these highly social, time-sensitive environments are reported to cultivate and improve real-world leadership abilities (Reeves, Malone, and O’Driscoll 2008). Many of the leadership skills and people management tasks required to successfully manage a virtual team are analogous to the real-world demands faced by small group leaders in modern business. Some forward-thinking companies, like IBM, have now begun to inquire about employee’s online video game experience as a measure of future leadership potential (Reeves, Malone, and O’Driscoll 2008).

Health care and related fields have also begun to explore the virtual to extend the benefits of modern medicine and reduce the risks of medical procedures, especially on children (see also Riva, chapter 39 in this volume). MDNationwide has created a robotic assisted surgery system that allows expert surgeons to provide real-time surgical support across any distance using a high-definition avatar of the patient created using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed tomography (CT) scans.4 This approach to sharing real medical expertise through virtual reality extends the potential benefit of modern medicine well beyond historical limitations of regional access. Physical rehabilitation techniques using avatars and VR have been demonstrated to improve patient recovery time and their feelings of self-efficacy (Keshner 2004; Kim et al. 2007; Kurillo et al. 2011). Pediatric anesthesiology has effectively used immersive games to reduce pain in young patients for whom traditional anesthesia is too dangerous (Gold et al. 2006; Furman et al. 2009; Dahlquist et al. 2009). This innovative approach to pain management has also been applied to reduce experienced pain in treatment for burn victims (Hoffman et al. 2008). Taken together, these applications are nothing short of a virtual revolution in commerce, learning, and modern medicine.

Future Applications

With the introduction of wearable technologies, it is possible that avatars could be used to perceive daily life moment by moment through pervasive mobile sensors and ubiquitous computing (Reeves and Read 2010). A forward-looking group known as The Quantified Self has begun measuring and reporting data on nearly every aspect of life from exercise and eating behaviors to priority optimization of tasks and tracking (p. 140) of health issues.5 It is not difficult to imagine a world where one’s every action is measured and reported. In a paper written for the US government, serious game researchers identified applications of the principles outlined in this chapter to optimize choices for citizens and government workers in the areas of energy efficiency, educational assessment, worker productivity, safety and health, and the quality of information exchanges (Reeves et al. 2011). While there are no guarantees that governments and large organizations will adopt the particular applications, it is certain that avatar use and immersive environments will continue to grow and evolve in ways that are merely beginning to be imagined.

Conclusion and Directions for Future Research

The next step for research is to apply lessons learned from laboratory work to large-scale use environments “in the wild.” More research is needed on longitudinal effects of using a unique avatar over time, for example, study of gender-based effects and the effects of gender-bending over extended periods of time. Continued development of casual VEs and avatar use in everyday life will warrant continual evaluation and extension of the principles outlined in this chapter.

In sum, the notion of an avatar has been around long before the computer in literature, religion, and mythology. Since the advent of personal computers in the late seventies, avatars have received a more rigorous treatment by scholars as they predicted when and how the revolution of virtual representation would proceed. It is only in the past decade that avatars have become commonplace enough in the world for social scientists to engage in rigorous study of the psychological effects of avatars. At the time this chapter is published, avatars have migrated from academic laboratories to the world at large. As such, understanding the psychological implications—both positive and negative—is critical.

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                                                                                                                            Notes:

                                                                                                                            (1) . World population projection. http://www.census.gov/population/international/. Accessed December 17, 2011.

                                                                                                                            (2) . Internet use estimates. http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm. Accessed December 17, 2011.

                                                                                                                            (3) . The Virtual Meeting Room in Bloomberg Businessweek, April 16, 2007. http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/apr2007/tc20070416_445840.htm. Accessed April 30, 2012.

                                                                                                                            (4) . The DaVinci Surgery System is a robotic-assisted surgery system with a wide array of available surgical procedures. http://www.mdnationwide.org/robotic_surgery.htm. Accessed August 31, 2011.

                                                                                                                            (5) . The Quantified Self movement. http://quantifiedself.com/. Accessed December 23, 2011.