Q&A with an avatar researcher

[From The Wall Street Journal blog Digits (“Technology News and Insights”)]

May 4, 2010

Q&A: A Real Study of Virtual Worlds

By Alice Truong

Students of Ulrike Schultze might know her better by her Second Life avatar, Uskla. That’s because the Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business professor utilizes the online game to connect to her students in an unusual way.

Ms. Schultze, who teaches management and information technology, leads both an online and physical classroom — students have the option of attending either or both. But for her, Second Life goes beyond being a teaching tool. Ms. Schultze explored the avatar-self relationship with a paper she presented at the 30th International Conference on Information Systems in Phoenix back in December. With her research, funded by the National Science Foundation, she will write a series of papers that look into the different aspects of these avatar-self relationships.

In the following Q&A, Ms. Schultze talks about her interest in avatars, who represents her in the virtual world of Second Life and the implications of this avatar-self relationship.

Tell me about your background in avatars and how you got into this topic.

To me these virtual worlds just represent I think a next step in the evolution of our communication technology. Essentially we’ve had text-based virtual worlds in the past. But now that we have these 3-D components with these virtual worlds, that obviously adds a new dimension, new opportunities, and takes these new technologies out of fantasy realm into a realm of potential serious play.

At that point in time I became interested in studying them. And my main question was really: What is so unique about these environments? What is it I should be focusing on? To me, what came in full is the avatar, the fact that we now have a virtual body as part of our communication sets. We have a virtual body because we take our body as communication devices. But sometimes we take them for granted. Especially in a technology-enabled environment, the body disappears in some sense, but now we have a new body through the form of these avatars. It was an opportunity I felt I wanted to grab and learn about.

What was the field research you did for this?

I basically interviewed 35 people who were spending at least 10 hours a week in Second Life. They were engaged in different kinds of activities. Some had businesses in Second Life, purely Second Life businesses. Others were developer-designers who were building for companies in Second Life. A lot of people were there simply for socializing. Some of them were in there for role play, sort of fantasy role play. I had an approach where I basically interviewed them face-to-face first and then actually met them in a Barnes and Noble, interviewed them there, went to onto Second Life with them in Barnes and Noble and then I did another set of phone interviews where I used a method that isn’t widely used in this point. It’s called a photo diary. I asked people to keep a diary where they took a photograph of incidents that stood out and were particularly important for them. And then I would interview them for another hour. Essentially I had five-hour conversations with 35 people.

As an academic, what is it like when you present your research to fellow academics, as you did at the International Conference on Information Systems?

People are very interested. That paper was actually nominated as one of the best papers for that conference. And so out of, I don’t know it must have been [200] or something—I think at least that many papers—it was one of the top six that got nominated for the best paper award. I think in some way this is a hot topic in the technology field. Certainly people will have different opinions on whether these virtual worlds are going to basically have a big role in serious applications for businesses and academia. That’s where people have a difference of opinions frequently. But avatars, or virtual ways of representing ourselves with bodies and so on, that’s finding its way into multiple technologies. I don’t think anybody has questions about that. From that point of view, I think by focusing on the avatars rather than a virtual platform in general, I think yeah, it basically gets treated more seriously and there’s less doubt on the relevance and importance to understand all sorts of applications.

What are some of the implications of your work?

In business, for example, there are real opportunities obviously for virtual teamwork, having people who are distributed come together in this environment because ultimately people are more present. You’re not going to forget the person that’s on the phone if you have people meeting face-to-face in a conference call kind of thing. So ultimately people really are present in a shared space and that gives the sense of shared experience. I think that’s obviously where one of the opportunities lies. And then a lot of what people are looking for is learning, using these as training environments, and so there we’re seeing quite a lot of traction. The thing is in business, you frequently hear people say we want people to think outside the box and especially in a time now where there’s more and more demand for innovation and new ideas.

I think this is where there’s some opportunities of engaging in a form of role play, that you basically extract yourself, or distance yourself, enough from the situation and yourself potentially to come up with new ideas and to learn. That’s where the avatar plays in. If you want people to have realistic role play, then you want to create the avatar in a way that is realistic to that environment. So if you want to think outside the box and come up with very different ideas and scenarios with some distance and playfulness, it’s useful. Most of them have humanoid avatars because they feel connected to that avatar but they also find it fun to put on an avatar like an animal or dragon. It makes it much more playful.

In your research, did you take a look into Second Life and create an avatar for yourself?

Oh yeah sure. I’ve been in Second Life since 2007. I have a humanoid avatar. She doesn’t look like me at all. She’s not particularly interesting because in my case I use the avatar for teaching, so basically have them be engaged in role play for example. She wears jeans and boots and has black short hair whereas in real life, I have blondish long hair.

I think maybe the one thing that might be worth mentioning is obviously avatars have names. That’s where a lot of people come up with creative solutions for a name. Some people for example take their own first name and misspell it in some kind of way, add another n somewhere, or they spell it backwards. We see that quite a bit. And so in my case, I was looking for a name that didn’t exist as far as I was concerned that still implied a woman’s name. So I anagrammed my father’s first name and came up with the name called Uskla. His name is Klaus. I think up to now, I think it’s the only Uskla in Second Life.

What is it like to teach about avatars? How do you incorporate that in the classroom with your students?

I guess up to now I haven’t incorporated teaching about avatars. I’ve used Second Life in the classroom, I teach [part-time evening] MBA students. By teaching both in the classroom, a real-life classroom as well as replicating that classroom in Second Life, invariably, there were one or two students who attended the classes via Second Life rather than in the first-life classroom. I think it gives tremendous flexibility to the classroom. It’s very low investment, in terms of my investment, in terms of setting it up in the classroom as well as the students’ investment because Second Life is free.

Are your students initially very shocked or think you might not necessarily be serious when you say, “We’re going to Second Life for class”?

I don’t think they’re shocked about it. I don’t think they see it as frivolous. I think they do recognize [Second Life] a technology that exists and is probably going to find its way into more and more applications within business and education. I think if any question arises, it’s: What is it really useful for in the way we’ve used it? I think in education, it’s increasingly becoming clear the value of Second Life lies in simulation, that basically people can go in as avatars and practice certain situations.

Your research mentions that there are some gray areas that exist because people are a step removed from real life in Second Life and issues of morality come into play. Can you elaborate on that?

What’s interesting about the interviews I’ve done is how on the one hand people say it is real … and we can’t make distinction between virtuality and reality, that they were themselves in Second Life, that they were talking, that this was them taking action in Second Life. And then at the same time in another situation they would draw very stark boundaries between the reality and what they then call the game frequently.

So issues of morality you frequently find with people using in Second Life, even though in real life they are married, they will have another partner in Second Life, and so basically have a virtual intimate relation. The issue of morality is one of: Is it infidelity or not? Some people indicate it’s emotional infidelity even though it’s not physical infidelity. And so some people strategically use this notion of “Oh, it’s just a game. Oh it’s just role play. It really isn’t me.” And so I think that’s where we have a lot of blurring of lines. When is it real? When is it me versus when is it a game? For me, it’s a continuum of how integrated you feel, or how at one with your avatar you feel versus how separate you are from it. People don’t choose a single place on that continuum. I think they move.

Are there other implications from the blurring of these lines?

To me the opportunity of avatars is exactly in the blurring of the boundaries. That is the avatar is me but not quite, and so the question is: What’s the not quite? Are you leaving stuff out of who you are? Are you hiding things about yourself or are you giving yourself more power or powers as an avatar than you have in real life?

Certainly what I hear and what I’ve heard a lot of in interviews with people is how the avatar to them has become basically a guide or a way of them living out powers that they feel they don’t have in real life. So for example a lot of people sort of say I’m shy in real life, I don’t talk to people, I don’t have the confidence to try out new things and yet my avatar is gregarious and funny and assertive and all these things – all these things I find I’m not and I struggle with in real life. It’s like they give themselves permission by imbuing the avatar with those characteristics. It’s almost like they practice being that way. In that practice they bring it into real lives and find that skills they learn in Second Life, ways of being in this virtual world, through their avatar become reality for them. And I think that’s incredibly powerful, basically not only a self-development tool but also a training tool.

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