• 21Sep

    Tateru Nino poses an intriguing question about why disabled users often become quite attached and identify with their avatars, more so than able-bodied people do:

    To many such physically impaired users, the body is no more nor less a tool than an online avatar, and the latter (despite lag, occasional inventory loss, network problems and all the other hurly-burly of a virtual environment) is the more reliable, expressive and liberating, allowing more ability to contribute, work, play and socialize.

    Why then, do the able-bodied among us tend to see so much more distinction between our bodies in the physical world and our digital representations? Is that distinction merely an artificial one, a handicap brought about by our able-bodied perspective?

    I suspect it’s a matter of the strength of the connection between thought, action, results, and feedback.

    For a perfectly able-bodied person, the mind directs the body smoothly, precisely, and effortlessly. Thought easily translates into action, and the feedback — sensory input confirming the results — reinforces the mind-body connection. As a result, your body starts to feel like part of your “self”, rather than an external thing.

    But for an able-bodied person using an awkward tool or interface, the translation from thought to action is not nearly so effortless, the feedback is not as rewarding, and thus the connection is not as strong. As a result, the person feels less in control, and more conscious of manipulating an unwilling external object.

    I certainly can’t speak for any disabled person, but I’ve heard motor impairment described in similar terms. It requires a great deal of conscious effort to merely take a step or pick up a coffee mug. The body seems more like an unwilling object that must be forced to act, and less like an intimate tool for enacting the mind’s will.

    On the other hand, someone with motor impairments that, say, make it difficult to walk, may find a Second Life avatar controlled through the computer responds more easily to their will than the body does, and the feedback to be more rewarding than that provided by the body. They are in control, and the avatar obeys with minimum effort; it takes only a keystroke to make the avatar walk, run, or even fly. Depending on the severity of the motor impairment, the avatar may feel like an equal — or better — tool for enacting the person’s will than their physical body is.

    So, my hypothesis is thus: the relative quality of control over the body versus the avatar determines the attachment and sense of self with respect to each. If you feel much more in control of your body than you do your avatar, you will feel a much stronger attachment to your body. Likewise, if you feel more in control of your avatar, you will feel more attached to it.

    If my hypothesis is correct, then we should be able to observe some corollaries:

    • People who are very physically fit and in control of their bodies (e.g. gymnasts) should tend to be less avatar-identified than those who are less fit.
    • People who are skilled at using computer interfaces should tend to be more avatar-identified than those who struggle with computers.
    • People who can control Second Life through a mind-computer interface (e.g. an Emotiv headset) should tend to be more avatar-identified than people who use the keyboard and mouse.
    • If Second Life became easier to use, people should tend to identify more strongly with their avatars than they currently do.

    Although I’ve been thinking about this in terms of users with motor impairments and other physical disabilities, it occurs to me that it also should apply to any other sort of debilitation. So, let me generalize my hypothesis: the relative enablement of one’s will by the physical self versus the avatar determines the attachment and sense of self with respect to each.

    If that is true, then the following should also be true, as well as the things listed above:

    • People who have physical difficulty hearing or speaking, and thus find communication by chat more enabling, should tend to be more avatar-identified than those who can easily hear and speak.
    • Among people who find speaking and listening easier than typing, those who use voice chat should tend to be more avatar-identified than those who do not use voice chat.
    • People who have have difficulty socializing in person (due to shyness, social anxiety, etc.) should tend to be more avatar-identified than those who socialize effortlessly.

    This is an extension of the observation that people who are skilled with a particular tool (e.g. hammer, tennis racket, pencil, computer) become emotionally attached to that type of tool. And further, that if they use the same instance of the tool (e.g. the same pencil) for a long time and get positive feedback from using that tool, they begin to feel the tool as part of themselves, an extension of their body, rather than a separate tool.

    I’m sure there are additional factors specific to avatars that enhance the emotional attachment to the avatar. Two in particular that come to mind: the expression of our personalities through customization of the avatar, and the fact that the avatar is the primary means through which we interact with the virtual world as a whole.

    Those factors enhance and facilitate the attachment and sense of self, but it’s the sense of enablement and positive feedback from the tool (the Second Life viewer) that provide the foundation for it.

    That would explain why having a positive experience when first using Second Life is so important to getting “hooked” and why Second Life often appeals so strongly to the shy and the disabled. It would also suggest that Linden Lab’s focus on new user experience is not so stupid, and that making the user interface easier and more enabling would go a long way towards emotional attachment, and thus user retention.

    What do you think? Am I on to something, or is this just a bunch of confirmation-biased psychobabble bullshit?

    Posted by Jacek Antonelli @ 10:33 pm

4 Responses

  • dandellion Kimban Says:

    You are right on track. It seems that people that are immersed deeper in the virtual environment rarely complains about the UI. If one doesn’t struggle with the controls, imagination is free to connect the worlds. OTOH, if computer screen, keyboard and the mouse are something that asks for special attention, mind will have no opportunity to really jump inside. It’s like watching the movie while it is cold. Something “outside” is breaking the moment. Same thing happens if there is a “middle layer” in communication with the avatar. E.G. if one have to think “I press the key to make the avatar do that” communication (and identification) will be much weaker than when action and reaction are intuitivly connected.

  • Phoenixflames Kukulcan Says:

    I think you are onto something….

    I’m betting if REAL A/B testing were to be done with your forthcoming new viewer, your theory would get strong support from the data.

  • Alexandra Daikon Says:

    You are totally on the right track!

    I danced for 10 years then my body went down the tubes for various reasons, not just joints etc but my health decreased and I find it much harder to communicate with people when all I can think about is how tired or sore I am in RL, since usually I’m standing there and trying to pay attention… but in SL (or WoW which I’ve basically moved over to) I can sit there in my pjs on my bed and totally comfortable and able to be myself. I don’t have to worry about keeping up if I’m walking with someone, be self conscious if all of a sudden I have to move around because I’m getting to sore, or have them start thinking that I’m not paying attention since I’m always exhausted.

    In a virtual world you don’t have these disabilities. You are a normal person, who can do anything any other person can do unless you tell them otherwise. You don’t have to worry about being able to walk only so far, or be self conscious at all about anything. Shyness nearly goes out the window as well since the self consciousness is nearly nonexistant.

    It’s a perfect place for anyone, anywhere, to go in and actually feel accepted, instead of being the odd one out which is most likely the case in a RL situation.

    Anyways… amazing post Jacek! You hit the nail on the head!

  • Seshat Czeret Says:

    “It requires a great deal of conscious effort to merely take a step or pick up a coffee mug. The body seems more like an unwilling object that must be forced to act, and less like an intimate tool for enacting the mindís will.”

    Make me cry, Jacek. Sheesh.

    Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like. Standing is an effort of will. Walking is an effort of will. Walking ‘normally’ is sometimes a severe effort of will.

    But in SL, things that are painful and difficult IRL are a single keystroke.