Virtual 'avatars' may alter real-life experiences

Last Updated 04 May 2018, 12:09 IST

Spending time immersed as a virtual character or avatar in a role-playing video game can alter your experience of reality and numb you to important real-life experiences, according to a new study.

Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany and Stephen Loughnan of Melbourne University in Australia, studied what happens when gamers take on the role of - and identify with - a nonhuman character such as an avatar during immersive video gaming, and how it especially influences their experience of pain.

Avatars often have automaton-like, robotic characteristics such as mechanistic inertness, rigidity and a lack of emotion and warmth.

Participants were asked how much time they spend each week playing video games. Their responses were then correlated with a measure of pain tolerance by counting the number of paperclips that they could retrieve from ice-cold water.

In a second experiment, participants played either an immersive or a nonimmersive computer game before taking part in the same pain-resistance task.

The immersive video-game players exhibited a reduced sensitivity to pain and removed significantly more paperclips from ice-cold water. They were also more indifferent to people depicted as experiencing displeasure than were the nonimmersive players.

Weger and Loughnan found that by taking on and acting from the perspective of an automaton-like avatar, people are desensitised to pain in themselves and in others.The point of view adopted during video gaming appears to have implications that extend beyond the virtual environment, into real life.

Weger pointed to what he sees as a misleading development: that the human–machine boundary is increasingly being blurred, either by humans entering virtual machines/robots, or by anthropomorphising, in other words adding human qualities to animated figures and toys.

Machines are being programmed to attract human inclinations, while virtual characters and robots have started to perform tasks or roles that were traditionally held by humans, such as that of robot counselling therapists.

In such an environment it becomes increasingly easy and normal to regard artificial beings as being akin to human beings.

"We see this blurring as a reality of our time but also as a confused and misleading development that has begun to shape society," said Weger.

"We believe this should be balanced by other developments, for example, by working on our awareness of what it really means to be human," Weger said.

The study was published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, published by Springer.

(Published 29 October 2013, 15:48 IST)

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