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Can Avatars Feel?

May 7, 2010

As I jerked about, walking erratically backwards and forwards, desperately trying to gain my composure for a group picture, “Clement Messmer” chided,  “Even in Second Life, there’s a level of personal space.”  Everyone gathered in that virtual space took one step back in unison. We all understood that we had done something wrong, even if the warning was punctuated with net lingo, “LOL.”

What prevents gamers from achieving an optimal experience – one that elicits a feeling of psychological immersion, energized focus, absolute involvement, and change to positive emotions – is the inability to recognize emotions from text. Although the anonymity of metaverses such as Second Life free people to act without the usual social restraints, an avatar, ironically, can’t convey basic emotions: anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise.  As a result, we overvalue minimal, text-based cues.  The resulting idealized relationships makes metaverses hyperpersonal, actually exceeding face-to-face interactions in intensity.

The collective action of stepping backwards in the above scenario signifies a blurry line between guilt and shame. Guilt can be described as a bothered conscience.  We feel guilty for an action we regret:  we feel guilty for what we do.   In my case, I apologized beforehand; I knew I had mistakenly moved too close for comfort. That feeling of embarrassment quickly turned into shame:  feeling guilty for events which are out of my control.  We feel shame for what we are.

Both shame and guilt can have intensive implications for our perceptions of self and our behavior toward other people, particularly in text-based computer-mediated communication (CMC).  The result is often an inward-turning behavior – avoiding others, hiding your face, removing yourself from social situations.  Why would a gamer willfully immerse herself in a metaverse that mimics social interactions in the real world to an nth degree?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Rick Thomchick permalink
    May 7, 2010 12:58 pm

    Brilliant followup to our LIBR251 discussion!!! Where are you in the group picture? I was the elvish dude with the cloak (“Amigosito Mistwallow”).

    I want to collaborate further on this topic with you because CMC is highly relevant to remote usability and online social interaction. There are also recent studies showing that CMS actually has the OPPOSITE affect on people with certain forms of autism, helping (rather than hindering) them to interact socially. Hmm….

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