Virtual Banality Research

I just finished reading an article in the Stanford Alumni magazine called “Seeing Is Believing” about the research going in the laboratory of psychological researcher Jeremy Bailenson on how avatars can change our real-life behavior and make us better people.

While his experiments are all fine and good about how to mess with people’s real-life behavior by forcing them through avatar-marches of controlled virtual calesthenics, this is the opposite of the kind of research we really need. I’d rather they study why people become such ass wads when they have a shred of anonymity and engage in destructive behaviors. The worst part is that the article doesn’t mention any kind of real insights or intelligent revelations from the former — at least not to anyone who has a clue about VR. Some statements are as clueless as “…unlike donning a costume or putting on makeup in real life, in cyberspace your avatar is your whole self-representation, the primary identity cue that tells you how to behave socially.” (Incidentally, the quote extends to not just how you behave, but how people perceive you.)

My response is: WTF? Only in cyberspace? Hel-lo. Our bodies are our primary identity cue in real life! Otherwise, why would we be so obsessed with looks? Either this article doesn’t really explain the research being done in Bailenson’s lab or these researchers live on Planet Fucking 9, where zillions of dollars aren’t made every day marketing health and beauty products to an fat-phobic, global public. This statement doesn’t make much sense at all. In fact it sounds, well, dumb.

I wish someone would please give me a bunch of money like they’ve done this guy so that I, too, can study a phenomenon I never fully experienced when it was in development pre-1999. If we take this article literally, these guys were involved with virtual reality back in the day yet didn’t know about WorldsAway. I would think at some point in the interview he or one of the other researchers would have mentioned the 2D+ graphical virtual world available on Compuserve in 1995; if not that, then either Habitat (which was built for George Lucas in 1987) or Glass City, the Japanese version of WorldsAway pre-1994. If he really didn’t know, then he missed a massive chunk of early development and experience in graphical virtual worlds that preceeds Second Life and WoW by at least a decade. The way the article reads, it sounds like he made it to a post-doctoral position without any experience in what he’s studying, which is kind of scary. Otherwise, how do people go on pretending as if this major work was never done and that graphical virtual communities are the product of the last five years? It’s mind bogglingly ignorant. I can’t believe Bailenson didn’t know about it; I mean, he probably did and the article choses not to mention it, instead prefering the following:

His interest in virtual spaces is less about the hardware, and more about the wetworks: what happens to your mind when you are living digitally. His work is partly inspired by novelists like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, whose cyberpunk fantasies he read while studying cognitive psychology at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University.

And if he was into Neal Stephenson back then to that degree, then he’d know that Neal took the word “avatar” from Randy Farmer, the creator of WorldsAway. The first editions of Snow Crash include Neal’s acknowledgement the word’s origins and his thanks. (Maybe future editions, too. I’m still kicking myself because my copy disappeared long ago.) Snow Crash was our required reading for WorldsAway development. Also, the very first paper ever written or presented at a conference on avatar behavior is “The Lessons of Habitat,” which was presented at The First International Conference of Cyberspace held in — wait for it — 1990. That’s 18 years ago, folks.

Putting aside this weird gap in his cyber-history, I like that Bailenson is exploring the therapeutic effects of VR on our day-to-day social behavior. Although, it seems like a narrow approach to VR and pretty obvious that, for the most part, in uncontrolled environments online interaction ultimately degenerates our ability to deal with face-to-face social problems. I think the opposite research — that is, exploring how people transform behind their virtual masks — is more beneficial to explore because it taps into the psychological ugliness that speaks to so many of our real-world problems, such as why it’s easy to commit mail fraud and other faceless crimes. Avatar Therapy might be the next ultra-expensive wave of psychotherapy, but honestly I’d rather see research money like that poured into studying human psychology and dynamics in an uncontrolled environment. You know: the real world, but virtual.

But that’s just me.

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