Millions of people are now interacting in virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft using the guise of avatars. In these spaces, users can actually design their avatars to be subtly or radically different from who they are in real life.
And it turns out how people interact through their avatars – the signals they give one another through conversation and appearance – can tell us a lot about the choices and biases that inform our behavior in the real world.
Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has been doing a number of experiments with graphical representations and in virtual worlds. As avatars become more common and more useful outside of gaming – already avatars are being used for virtual workplaces, customer service, and advertising – questions of ethics, trust, and honesty become significantly more important.
After all, it’s one thing if your avatar is casually dating another avatar who might not be what he or she seems in real life. It’s quite another when corporations or political candidates realize that they can handcraft an avatar to take advantage of your biases and earn your trust for their own purposes.