The Avatar as the New Self

If you’ve watched the Facebook April 17 presentation on Facebook Spaces [], their now functional virtual social world, then the concept of the avatar should come to mind.  That Facebook sees avatars as the new platform for social communication and dialog is telling on a number of levels.  If nothing else, it should certainly reawaken interest Second Life and its new version Sansar.


But at a more basic level it brings us back to the whole issue of realities and the increasingly artificial distinction between physical reality, social realities and digital realities which we’ve looked at this semester.


In the traditional (say pre-1995 w0rld), physical-social reality were cohesive and intertwined.  Your individual sense of who and what you were (your internalized self) was largely driven by the input of others.  Identity and image were largely a result of externalized forces.  Self-expression and self-identity were constrained by the demands and expectations of others, and the internal ego was largely limited to art and literature (diaries anyone?).  The sense of being “trapped” by the demands and expectations of the ‘real world’ were dominant.


In the contemporary early 21st century world social reality has moved into the digital and has largely become divorced from physical reality.  They now compete for time and attention.  Given the asynchronous nature of social media, this has allowed the growth of self-identity into social reality.  Your individual sense of who and what you are now drives how you image and present yourself in social media, and how others perceive you.  Identity and image are now largely the result of ego-based choice.  Given the essentially limitless ability to find a group of like-minded people to support you, you can find public acceptance of who you want to be seen as.


But the digital is not the same as the physical.  Being part of a group and social network doesn’t mean you have anyone to hang out with at the beach, go drinking together–all those activities which require physical co-presence.  With the increasing popularity of Augmented Reality platforms, the need for physical co-presence may become less of an issue.   You can interact with your physical surroundings while interacting digitally–digital co-presence without physical co-presence.  The implications for group membership, group identity, relationships–all these will change as technology continues to impact on our social lives in changing ways.


Social interaction, social identity and realities in general are changing.  Into what is the question.



Multiple Modes to Reality-Virtual, Augmented Reality

This will be our last topic of the semester so it’s only appropriate we look at the emerging realities—the immersive, but isolating virtual reality of Oculus Rift (including the Samsung system in my office you can check out) or the augmented reality seen in the Microsoft vid a couple of weeks ago.

In both cases the goal is to replace the screen-keyboard experience of the PC (or game console/phone) with something more portable, more attuned to normal movements such as hand gestures.  Virtual reality systems by definitions must be immersive since their goal is to replace reality with a digital reality.  This has been the dream since Star Trek’s holodeck (see nice Wikipedia entry at .  In VR the user is immersed in the digital reality, theoretically with all senses being equally functional as in the real world.  However in contemporary tech this involves a isolated headset with screen.

As Castronova, Yee and others have noted in work on games and Second Life, the brain quickly assumes what it senses is real.  It is quite common for people to get motion sickness while in VR headsets.  The bulk and control-interface issues keep VR on the fringe, though Facebook has sunk a huge sum of money into VR as the new platform for social media.  A good example of VR can be seen in the Steam vid at  Note the isolation from reality.

By contrast, augmented reality (AR) uses projection to place aspects of digital reality into physical reality.  A good example would be the recent Microsoft Hololens HoloTour demo vid, with an excellent summary in the ColdFusion vid  As ColdFusion notes, it is intentionally designed with reality integration as a goal.  Having said that, note that in both cases they want to move you from reality to the digital form.  Given the huge $$$ being poured into this, robust functional versions are likely by 2019 (as in commercially available).  This leaves several questions, not the least is what will happen to the smartphone makers as phones disappear.  Again note that this fits well with the Microsoft demo vid we saw before [].  Note the lack of any phone, with flextablets as work spaces.

Whichever technology, the issues of addiction to digital forms and all the other issues we’ve seen this semester will be amplified.  We will discuss the potential for amplified stress points in our last Hangout session Wednesday—think back to the Catfishing episode and online dating—and now mix that in with the Steam and/or Microsoft demos–how does that change the whole pattern of social interaction, with avatars?  Who would be the ‘real you’?  How big of a jump into a digitized version of “Surrogates” [] ?  See you on the other side.



If you look at the MMORPG powerpoint you will see several points that drive this post.  A number of studies show that social interaction in gaming is central to the experience.  This can be more important than other aspects of the game world, or conversely awkward social interaction design can doom an otherwise attractive game world.

But while MMORPGs share this desire with social interaction with the more free-form social virtual worlds (such as SL), they are (unlike SL), very structured, controlled virtual environments designed by a development company.  All aspects of the gaming world, such as goals, images, dialog and almost every other aspect of the experience are programmed by the company who built the MMORPG.  In this way they are different from the more fluid social virtual worlds such as SL.

This can be seen in the quote from Yee’s work: “Online games are like school in many ways.  Both provide predefined rewards for a set of highly constrained and objectively measured activities… Wherever you are in the education treadmill, you know exactly where you are, where you’ll be next, and how to get there.  For about sixteen years of our lives, this is the model of progress we are all taught.  And then we’re let loose into the real world, where these rules go away.  Goals are no longer defined for you.  Performance in many jobs has no clear objective measure… The real world is tough, and it’s often unfair.

Not so in online games.  Everyone who kills the evil bandit gets the same amount of experience points.  Goals are clear, predefined, and fair.  Your achievements are displayed in a multitude of easy-to-read progress bars.” (Nick Yee Proteus Paradox 2014: 34-5)

Yee also notes that this structure—of a predictable progression leading to clearly defined goals—can be very attractive compared to the chaotic nature of reality.  As Bauerlein notes, digital media can encourage self-directed and self-centered attitudes, especially in the 10-25 age group.  Rather than larger social networks, this shrinks into a smaller group sharing common experiences.  His argument is based on digital reality in general rather than gaming specifically, but he sees gaming as being a factor with some groups.

This brings us to one of the biggest fears of digital gaming–that of the gamer turning into “otaku”, of someone who is so consumed with their digital realm that it starts to play a dominant role in their real existence.  Or at it’s most extreme, the “hikikomori” who basically removes themself from much of reality to spend the majority of their time in their digital world.  Both these concepts have been around in Japanese society for the last several decades, with hikikomori coming to more general attention in the last 15 years [feel free to google both and see what you get]. [Remember your earlier reading].

Note that this shift in real-world social engagement (or shifting orientation) is very different than the older concerns about gaming as a trigger for anti-social behavior [including in SL terms, ‘griefing’].  This has been around since pinballs in the 1950s but grew in volume with the growth of gaming consoles in the 1980+ period.  As the gaming media has shifted, and as the quality (especially visual) has improved, the concerns have grown, despite the lack of compelling evidence to show a clear correlation between explicit anti-social games and real-world anti-social behavior.  A current example of this issue can be seen if you google “gaming addiction”, an example being at this website=

The issue of gaming addiction [more accurately gaming compulsion] is treated very seriously in Asian societies, in part due to the heavy expectations placed on 10-25 age group to fulfill family and social expectations.  So anything that gets in the way of academic success is treated harshly.  This can be seen in the documentary on gaming addiction intervention at  This can also be seen in a number of articles such as the one by Li et al (2012) “Effects of Digital Game Play Among Young Singaporean Gamers” JVWR 5:2 Sept. 2012).  A common thread to most of these is the escapism/irresponsible wasting of time, rather than the projection of gaming violence into the real world.

It’s of interest given our topics that gaming addiction is seen as a much more troubling phenomena socially than social media addiction.  In your view, why?  This will be one of our topics in the next Hangout session.


From a functional standpoint, MMOs are fascinating as they are one of the most successful of the financial forays into online social engagement.

The earlier model of social gaming worlds would be the subscription model (Everquest, World of Warcraft, EVE…) where you pay a fee to enter and play the game.  Given that MMOs are incredibly expensive to develop (same as a high-end Hollywood movie—60-90 million USD), and there is the cost of maintaining the system (upgrades, control) they needed a robust guaranteed means of income.

With increasing Web 2.0 access a second model has grown and now dominates much of the market—that of “free to play” but to save/enhance/progress in the game it involves payment.  This coincides and has been driven (in part) by the growth of portable (phone) gaming in contrast to the traditional PC.  The chance of catching a huge global market if popular (Minecraft anyone?) means that a new set of paradigms in game design grow up—graphics drop in importance, but other aspects of story or game play take precedence.

The need to design compatible cross-platform (phone-PC-console) versions that are all attractive and compelling puts even greater strain on game design companies, dramatically raising the costs of developing A new product.  Another developing threat is the independent development of games in APPs, which can be done by a small team for small cost (Forge of Empires is a good example).

This pattern has some analogies to popular music—the big labels vs independents—who wins ($$$), who loses is much less predictable than just 10 years ago. All of which increases the risk of MMORPG development dramatically.

Social Research: There have been several major areas of interest in the study of MMOs.  A few games (especially World of Warcraft-WOW) has been the subject of several ethnographic and sociological studies [Nardi’s 2010 My Life as a Night Elf Priest; Bainbridge’s 2010 The Warcraft Civilization; and Pearce’s 2009 Communities of Play].  All of these studies focus on the users (gamers) and their social dynamics.

There has also been a large but not coherent amount of research done on the social-psychological aspects of intensive gaming, much of it driven originally by concerns about the social impacts of playing very violent anti-social games (much of it around Grand Theft Auto in its various versions).

In another direction, work by Nick Yee and others on the Daedalus Project, studying gamers and gaming motivation [why to people play games and what do they want from a game] came up with interesting findings.  He has expanded this into a career with his company Quantic Foundry [] and with his 2014 The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us-and How They Don’t.

I would recommend that you go to the QF website and take their survey as they give you where you fit in the ongoing gamer motivation study.

Assignment: Please watch his recent presentation on YTube “Gamer Motivation Profile Findings”

The last area of [very limited] study has been the cultural impacts on gaming—some of which Nick refers to in his presentation.  We will get into this more next week.

Remember the Hangout session Wed 12:30 where we will look at issues of motivation.  If you haven’t already, go back and watch the EVE vid clips I sent several weeks ago.