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Is virtual reality the cure for obesity?

Sunday, September 13, 2009 Posted by Peter Janiszewski, PhD

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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6 Response to "Is virtual reality the cure for obesity?"

  1. Jason R Said,

    Sure, Second Life can help you lose weight. But you have to hook it up to a treadmill first:

    Posted on September 14, 2009 at 1:04 PM

  2. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    @ Jason - that is quite funny! I have to admit I actually got a Second Life account to see what the fuss was about - not sure I get the point just yet, as I wonder around aimlessly attempting to start conversations with avatars that are apparently too cool to respond...

    Posted on September 14, 2009 at 5:41 PM

  3. Matt Said,

    "... 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."
    This is simply not true! Just today I spent 14 hours on my computer and expended calories by typing and mousing yet not once did I ingest any food. Hello! Instant weight loss idea. But I like this study's conclusion about life imitating virtual art, and I'm going to spend another 14 hours tomorrow figuring out how I can change my avatar so that even a horse is jealous!

    Posted on September 15, 2009 at 12:10 AM

  4. Riven Homewood Said,

    I've been on SL for over 2 years, and it's a gas.

    Their first hypothesis is probably right, that people who enjoy physical activities in real life will enjoy simulated physical activities in a virtual world. (By the way, "real life" is the accepted term for life that isn't lived online.)

    It doesn't seem impossible that somebody might try surfing or mountain climbing on SL and then decide to give it a try in RL. However, what I've seen more often is that people with disabilities that prevent them from enjoying such activities in rl greatly enjoy being able to simulate them in SL.

    Dancing is an obvious exception to this - dancing is a very popular social activity in SL, and most social events there include it. It serves much the same social function that eating does in rl.

    I'm not so sure about the validity of their second conclusion, that thin people have thin avatars. It seems unlikely that they actually weighted the participants in rl, so they are probably relying on self-reported data here to determine their rl weights. My impression is that most people go for thin on SL -- after all, if you can look any way you want to, why not? If your SL avatar is not thin and beautiful, it's usually because you're using your appearance to make a statement.

    This is a really interesting preliminary study. I hope the researchers will go on to apply their finding toward designing nutrition education and virtual weight-loss support groups.

    Posted on September 15, 2009 at 12:08 PM

  5. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    @ Matt - once again a VERY sarcastic comment, one that I fear may be lost on many:) You should include a sarcasm disclaimer at the bottom of each of your comments. I like the reference to the horse - I didn't realize this, but apparently your avatar can be just about anything - like a horse. Are you on Second Life Matt?

    As an aside, has anyone seen the Office episode where Dwight is on Sexond Life, and his avatar does noting but sits at a computer and accesses 'Second' Second Life? Genius!


    Posted on September 15, 2009 at 4:25 PM

  6. Peter Janiszewski, PhD (Cand.), MSc Said,

    @ Riven Homewood - Thanks for the insightful comments! I tried again last night to get the gist of SL, but feel like I am missing something - where the heck are all the other avatars? I keep interacting with random places which are totally void of others...

    Interesting point about people with physical disabilities having SL as an outlet to virtually experience what they can't in real life - I never considered that. I guess the step up from that is the ability to fly in SL - something I have wanted to do since I was a kid:)


    Posted on September 15, 2009 at 4:29 PM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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