Sunday, September 13, 2009
I know what you’re thinking. I was also a bit perplexed when I read the following headline: “Avatars could help fight obesity.”
This was a title of an article in the Triangle Business Journal discussing the results of a preliminary study published in the largely obscure Journal of Virtual Worlds Research.
In essence, this study (and I use the term ‘study’ very generously here) found that individuals who had personal virtual avatars of normal weight which exercised frequently tended to exercise frequently and be of normal weight in reality – as opposed to the virtual reality of Second Life.
If you are wondering what exactly I am referring to when I say ‘avatar’ or ‘Second Life’ – don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Basically, Second Life is a virtual world that can be accessed via the internet. It was launched back in 2003, and as of 2008 Second Life apparently had over 15 million accounts. In this virtual world, every person with an account (which you can get for free) has their own avatar, or a virtual representation of themselves (think Mii avatars you create of yourself and your friends on Nintendo Wii – if you are still lost, sincere apologies). In this world, acting through their avatars, people can do just about anything from chatting to strangers, shopping for clothes for their avatar, selling virtual goods, exercising, taking university courses (from 300 different accredited universities worldwide, honestly) and of course romancing other avatars (one of the most popular activities of this virtual world).
If you are interested to read more about Second Life, watch the video below – it is quite fascinating and somehow a little frightening as well.
So this is where this new publication on avatar’s weight status and exercise habits comes in.
The authors of the study wanted to test 2 main hypotheses:
1. Individuals with avatars who engage in physical activities in Second Life are more likely to engage in physical activities in real life.
2. Individuals with thinner avatars are more likely to be thinner in real life.
While I have read some interesting and arcane study methodology throughout my academic career, none even come close to this.
Here are some excerpts from the methods section of this ‘study':
“For this study, we conducted interviews of Second Life residents in our facility in Second Life. Avatar respondents were recruited through a notification sent to all members of the facility’s Survey Group in Second Life. The facility’s Survey Group is free for any avatar to join by signing up at a kiosk in the facility in Second Life; by joining, residents expressed interest in learning about participating in the facility’s surveys. Interested participants were asked to notify one of our staff avatars via Instant Message (IM) to schedule an appointment. Once contact was made via IM, our staff avatar screened the respondent for eligibility. In this study, our only eligibility requirement was that the respondent live in the United States in real life…”
(This last part gave me a good laugh – “in real life…”)
“Each interview took about 10 minutes. Respondents were paid 500 Linden dollars (the equivalent of approximately $2) for their time. All interviewing was done using the private text chat feature in Second Life that allows for privacy, as well as easy transcribing. Voice chat was not used.”
So did you catch all that?
These researchers actually had a virtual research facility made in a virtual world. Then, random avatars responded to the researcher’s virtual ad for a study and made an appointment to meet with a virtual researcher in a virtual research building in a virtual world. They then came for their appointment, and were interviewed (not in real life of course), and in return they made virtual dollars. All of this happened while the parties involved sat at some computer with an internet connection, with no actual visual or audio contact with a live human.
Not sure if it’s just me, but this alone is simply mind-blowing.
They ended up getting 29 different avatars to participate in the study.
Here’s what they found:
In response to their 1st hypothesis, “of those who reported high levels of physical activity for their Second Life avatars, 80.0% also reported participating in high physical activity in real life.”
In response to their 2nd hypothesis, the authors found that owners of thin avatars tended to be thinner than those who owned ‘average sized’ avatars – BMI of 24.7 versus 27.4 kg/m2.
When discussing the results of the study, the lead author, Elizabeth Dean was quoted as saying: "Based on these preliminary results, it seems likely that virtual reality users may adjust their identity to be consistent with that of their avatars."
Unfortunately, this VERY preliminary evidence consisting of NO statistical comparisons suggests nothing of the sort. In other words, Dean is shamelessly over-interpreting the findings of her study.
Think about it – is it any surprise that thin people chose to have thin avatars? Is it also surprising that people who regularly exercise in their real life would have their virtual selves also exercising?
Not at all! This does not suggest in any way that people would adjust their habits to conform to that of their avatar – if any causality can be implied, it would surely be in the reverse order (first comes real life, then your Second Life.)
This obvious caveat has not stopped many, including the study author, from misinterpreting the preliminary results.
In the end, I think it is unlikely that Second Life will help you shed pounds in real life – in fact, the idle sitting at the computer while interacting with the virtual world of Second Life may actually push the scale in the opposite direction.
Elizabeth Dean, Sarah Cook, Michael Keating, & Joe Murphy (2009). Does this avatar make me look fat? Journal of Virtual Worlds Research
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