avatarAs anyone that’s used online communities will tell you, your avatar carries more weight than you might have imagined.  It often plays a central role in forming your identity, as fellow members associate you as much with your ‘look’ as the words you write.

Mostly though the avatars people use are third party creations, or photos of themselves.  Some new research highlights the power an avatar has over us, especially when we get to design it ourselves.

“You exert more of your agency through an avatar when you design it yourself,” says S. Shyam Sundar, professor of communications and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Penn State, who worked with University of Michigan doctoral student Sangseok You.

“Your identity mixes in with the identity of that avatar and, as a result, your visual perception of the virtual environment is colored by the physical resources of your avatar.”

The researchers assigned random avatars to one group of participants.  The other however were allowed to customise their own avatars.  To see how the avatars affected perceptions, half of the participants in each group had backpacks on, whilst the other half did not.

When these avatars were placed in a virtual environment, complete with several hills of varying degrees of severity, the members who had built their own avatars perceived the hills to be much higher and steeper than those who had their avatars given them.  What’s more, they also overestimated how many calories they’d burn by scaling the hill if their avatar had a backpack.

“If your avatar is carrying a backpack, you feel like you are going to have trouble climbing that hill, but this only happens when you customize the avatar,” says Sundar.

With virtual training increasingly used to on-board and train employees, this understanding should go some way to ensuring the experience is as realistic and as useful as possible.  Soldiers for instance could use this insight to better stimulate their perceptions of actual conditions during virtual training exercises.

“Because building avatar identity is critical, it’s important to let users customize it,” Sundar says. “You are your avatar when it is customized.”

Future research will look at whether altering more elements of the users’ avatar will lead to more extensive changes in how people perceive virtual environments.

The Korea Science and Engineering Foundation supported this work.