Virtual and Real Body Consciousness

A recent study at George Washington University School of Public Health suggests that watching avatars engaged in healthy behaviors may influence the tendency to engage in similar real life behaviors. [1.] In the small pilot study, researchers tracked 8 women who had all tried some kind of diet for weight control over the past year. They were shown videos of simple avatars walking on a treadmill, shopping for healthy foods in a market, sitting down to eat (while learning about portion control), etc. At the end of one month, the women lost an average of 3.5 pounds, about what one would expect from someone changing lifestyle habits in diet and exercise.

In reporting on this news by Time Magazine reporter Alexandra Sifferlin asks, “Does connecting with a virtual version of yourself alter your perception of who you are and what you are capable of doing? And if that’s the case, could such virtual realities become a new tool for influencing social behaviors like relationships, or even lifestyle choices such as exercising, smoking or eating?” and suggests that this question is spurring new research.

The news coverage on this story has been fairly broad, but I think that’s largely due to the appeal of thinking all one has to do is play video games to lose weight, which is not at all what the actual story says. In fact, there was no interactive element at all. The researchers made their videos using either Second Life or OpenSim platforms (more likely the former since it appears to be using a recent SL viewer). The production quality of the videos, avatars, and sets is pretty awful, especially as compared to just about any of the current machinimas being produced.[2.] Further, the study had no control group and the sample seems too small to draw any conclusions about the effect of virtual reality on real life behaviors, though they do say this was a pilot study. “This is just the first step to show that women, even those who are not gamers, are interested in an avatar-based technology to help them with a weight-loss plan” (Napolitano).

The key to this study is that the women were able to select the appearance of the avatar in the video to resemble their own real life bodies. Identification with the avatar–not just as a representative, but also as an extension of the physical body–is one of the more profound and compelling aspects of working in virtual worlds. What the avatar experiences is largely felt by its operator. There is embarrassment when wardrobe malfunctions, a small avatar can feel more vulnerable than a tall one, being trapped can feel confining, objects falling on your virtual head can make you wince, etc.

The press release suggests that there were a limited number of essential body types from which the participants could choose. The mere fact of choosing a type with which they could identify could have a significant effect on their perceptions, i.e., they would be more likely to think “that is me.” How much more would they identify if they could spend time really customizing their virtual bodies–making choices on each part and selecting an appropriate outfit, making a uniquely personal avatar? Then having them move themselves through the different scenarios in a virtual world, making choices, and getting immediate feedback about their decisions? With a little more technical expertise, a study like this could be a lot more effective.

1. The study, “Using Avatars to Model Weight Loss Behaviors: Participant attitudes and technology development,” appears in the July 1 Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology. Authors include Melissa Napolitano, PhD of George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS), Sharon Hayes and Gary Foster, both at Temple’s Center for Obesity Research and Education, and Giuseppe Russo, Debora Muresu and Antonio Giordano of Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine.

2. From the GWU press release: “Using their extensive expertise in virtual reality, Director Antonio Giordano, MD, PhD, and Giuseppe Russo, PhD, of Temple’s Sbarro Institute for Cancer Research and Molecular Medicine, developed a virtual reality simulation featuring such an avatar.” A sample of the simulation is available here.

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