WoW is depressing me, and the end of this post has a guess about why. But first, some science:
Last year, Nick posted about new work coming out of Stanford, related to his excellent dissertation. The gist of the study was that our offline rules of social distance extend in online spaces, i.e. avatars stand apart from each other just like people do offline. Since then, Nick, Jeremy Bailenson and Byron Reeves (all at Stanford) have continued to plow ahead in this area. The work keeps pointing to our offline tendencies working similarly online. It turns out that millenia of evolution might be a hard habit to kick.
It gets odder below the fold...
At the recent International Communication Association annual conference in San Francisco, the Stanford folks were joined by Frank Biocca of MSU and Kristine Nowak of UConn on a fascinating panel on the latest and greatest in avatar research.(fn1) My reaction to the collective evidence presented is that it tends to support Nick's "Proteus Effect," which suggests that people react to avatars--and importantly to behave while in them--as they would when interacting with similar offline figures.
Evidence from other labs supports this phenomenon. Among the more interesting is work by Merola, Pena and Hancock of Cornell, who found that people playing avatars with dark clothes behaved more aggressively (seen at ICA '06 and still waiting for the journal version!). Yet more support came out this week as Nowak found that people are uneasy interacting with avatars of uncertain gender, supporting Reeves and Nass' past work that humans interact with unknown agents (robots, avs, whatever) and seek to establish these things, in this order:
1) is this thing human?
2) what is its gender?
3) is it compatible with me intellectually and socially?
So that's all pretty fascinating stuff. Now add the question that will surely drive poor Richard batty: does anyone really role play? The answer, from a very scarce pool of data and studies (e.g. this one)--and a quick look at the percentage of RP servers among MMOs--is that it's a small fraction of people who actually do so. Sure, we could debate that and derail the thread, but let's just run with it as an operating assumption, ok?
I'm going to take a stab at why this is all very sensible when viewed collectively. We are the products of many thousands of years of evolution, and although we're all subject to "nurture" and social effects, there is the tremendous weight of evolution driving us and our interactions. It's hard to de-train millennia of time on the savannah.
So what's the sound bite that one can share with a reporter or one's non-SL-traveling grandmother?
You can take the person out of the real, but not the real out of the person.
Now, that's my potshot at humans and virtual worlds. Maybe you buy it and maybe you don't. But if Nick is right and his Proteus effect can be extended even farther, there are a lot of implications for virtual world residents and operators. How far does this "humanness" extend? Will it govern how much, why and when people interact? Are we all pavlovian machines to be manipulated once understood?
Bear with me for what will seem like a digression: After growing up in sunny California, I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan for 6 years. The first 6 months there were totally depressing, and it took me a long time to figure out why. It was the grey sky. The sun refuses to shine for weeks at a time in Ann Arbor, and as awesome as the town is, I still found myself bummed out and tired. Here I was, subject to the evolutionary patterns of my gene pool, and in need of one of those shiny full-spectrum light boxes to fight off S.A.D. How lame! And the lights worked like a charm. It turns out I am lizard-brained enough to respond to external stimuli with behavior. Who knew?
At the top I sad that WoW has been depressing me, and here's one odd reason why. I spend a lot of time in Shattrath City, where the sky is perpetually grey and somber. Hanging out there is like Winter in Ann Arbor. Yech! Now, to test this theory, I asked all of my guild mates what their favorite zone was. 90% said Nagrand. Why, I asked? Oh, it has great quests they said. Sure, that might be it, but I see great quests in every zone. But Nagrand also happens to be the zone with the brightest sunlight, and the greenest grass. In short, it's the savannah. And virtual or not, it does seem to do the trick. Heck, half of the quests are hunting migrating animals. Maybe Blizzard tapped some pretty deep code by accident?
(fn1) Further proof that the field of communication is an excellent vantage point for virtual world research.