Just how real is virtual reality? A recent study on avatars in a virtual environment shows the extent that our physical selves can be fused with customized versions.

When gamers create personalized representations of themselves, the challenges and joy that their avatars encounter can have real physical and emotional effects. To find out just how important that customization factor is, communications researchers did a study with 121 college-aged participants.

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Penn State Media Effects Research Laboratory co-director S. Shyam Sundar and University of Michigan doctoral student Sangseok You started by separating participants into two groups, one that had assigned avatars and another that was allowed to customize theirs, according to Penn State News. The researchers also outfitted half the avatars in each group with virtual backpacks, saying the backpacks made the backpack made the experience more lifelike. Then the avatars were put in virtual environments where they encountered three hills.

Each hill had a different height and incline, the researchers reported earlier this month at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Paris. They discovered that participants who customized their avatars perceived the hills as steeper and higher than the participants with assigned avatars (abstract). Those with custom avatars who also had virtual backpacks overestimated how many calories it would take to hike up the hill, Sundar told Penn State.

“You are your avatar when it is customized,” Sundar concluded.

The hill element reminded me of a study that University of Virginia psychologist Jim Coan mentioned in a presentation (video) about attachment theory. I wonder what would have happened if the avatar study participants got to evaluate the hills with their friends’ avatars at their sides.

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I also want to know what would happen to the participants’ perception of those virtual hills if they were given more compelling reasons to send their avatars over them. Still, this research could help designers and developers create more realistic games, especially around exercise. Maybe if we feel like our custom avatars have special tools and abilities, those inclines will feel less like Everest and more like an ant hill.

Photo: A game avatar with a backpack. Credit: S. Shyam Sundar