Virtual reality users adjust their identity to be consistent with that of their avatars

Creating a Second Life avatar, or virtual representation of oneself, that is thin and physically fit may encourage individuals to become healthier and more physically fit in their real lives, according to a study by researchers at RTI International.

The study, published as a research-in-brief note in the August issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, found support for the idea that individuals are more likely to engage in physical activities in their real lives if their avatars in Second Life engage in physical activities.

"Based on these preliminary results, it seems likely that virtual reality users may adjust their identity to be consistent with that of their avatars," said Elizabeth Dean, research survey methodologist at RTI and the study's lead author. "The public health urgency surrounding the issue of obesity means that any intervention that might possibly affect real-life health should be considered."

The results showed that 80 percent of respondents who reported high levels of physical activity for their avatars reported participating in high levels of physical activity in their real lives.

Second Life is the largest online virtual world not specifically oriented toward gaming.

For this study, researchers interviewed 29 residents in the Second Life virtual world. Half the participants were interviewed by a thin avatar and half the participants were interviewed by an obese avatar.

The study found that participants interviewed by the thin avatar were more likely to report that their own avatar shape was thin than those interviewed by the obese avatar. The average body mass index (BMI) reported by participants was also higher when interviewed by the obese avatar than was reported by those interviewed by the thin avatar.

The researchers also found that almost three-fourths of respondents interviewed by a thin avatar described their avatar shape as thin, while only one-third of respondents interviewed by a heavy avatar described their avatar shape as thin.

"Avatar-respondents are more likely to report a higher real-life BMI to a heavy avatar than to a thin avatar because a heavy avatar conveys that a higher BMI is more socially acceptable," Dean said.

The researchers suggest that the ease of manipulating the size and shape of one's avatar in Second Life gives researchers the opportunity to understand social factors surrounding issues such as obesity, body image, and physical fitness.

"Health professionals are starting to use virtual worlds to conduct research and even provide treatment based on the idea that people are influenced by their avatars." Dean said.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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