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Your virtual self is more boring than you think

Nick Yee on how to free our online avatars from real-world constraints

There’s a phrase Nick Yee, a senior research scientist at Ubisoft who has built a career out of studying behavior in online games, likes to use: “breaking reality”—that is, taking advantage of the endless possibilities offered by online worlds to break free from real-world constraints.

Given today’s technology, he argues, there’s endless potential for the creation of eye-opening online worlds that truly take us out of ourselves, that show us things even the most brilliant film or novel could not. But these sorts of worlds haven’t emerged, for the most part, and Yee views this as a pity. In “The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us—And How They Don’t,” recently released by Yale University Press, Yee explains the weird ways in which we keep re-creating offline social structures and tendencies in online worlds.

The paradox, identified by Yee and a former supervisor named Jeremy Bailenson, refers to the fact that even though there is a practically unlimited range of behavior available to the avatars (or virtual characters) we choose for ourselves online, what actually happens is that our avatars are constrained in all-too-predictable ways by the norms of the real world. For example, study participants given taller or more attractive avatars tend to become more outgoing and conversationally assertive within online environments, even when there’s no connection between how their avatar looks and how they look in real life. “Virtual worlds change and control us in unexpected ways,” writes Yee.

This paradox is one reason that even as we fight monstrous dragons and pilot warp-speed starships online, we do so in online environments frequently beset by superstition, misogyny, and racism. And yet our tendency to simply re-create the same social structures that exist offline can be countered by savvy game development, says Yee. If we’re not reaching our potential in online worlds, it may be in part because something is missing in their design that might push us toward a brighter virtual future.


“The Proteus Paradox,” which draws on fields ranging from social psychology to game design, attempts to diagnose this problem and point at ways to create more original, edifying online environments. Yee spoke to Ideas from his home in Mountain View, Calif. This interview has been condensed and edited.


IDEAS: You write, “Even if virtual worlds were tabula rasa, we are encumbered with a great deal of cognitive baggage.” What do you mean by that?

YEE: When people think about virtual worlds and online games in particular, they think that these worlds are all about fantasy, fun, and freedom, that they’re these escapist worlds and that people can get to reinvent who they are....That very much was kind of the promise of worlds like “Second Life,” these social sandboxes, virtual worlds.

But what’s surprising in “Second Life” is it tends to be a really stereotypical version of suburban [life], like kind of Malibu, where everyone’s shopping for Abercrombie & Fitch knockoffs and living in these very modern houses on the beachfront, that it becomes this hyper-materialistic version of the physical world....Rather than allowing us to reinvent ourselves, virtual worlds tend to preserve the status quo and perpetuate it in powerful ways.

IDEAS: Do you have any favorite examples of real-world, human dynamics replicating themselves surprisingly in an online setting?

YEE: I like the gender one, just because it ties into other existing issues....We start off by asking players what they thought men and women stereotypically prefer to do in these games, and...people, both men and women, strongly stereotype female players as preferring supportive roles in the game, that female players prefer to heal [rather than fight]....


We actually had access to “World of Warcraft”’s server data....We had thousands of players fill out surveys. We knew what their gender was in real life. We went and grabbed their data in “World of Warcraft,” and we found that that stereotype was false, that men and women actually heal about the same amount in “World of Warcraft.”

Where there was a finding was in the avatar gender. Female avatars heal more than male avatars, and the effect was entirely driven by gender-bending [playing a character of the opposite gender]. When men gender-bend, they play a female character, they heal more, and when women gender-bend, when they play a male character, they heal less. So, again, we have this notion of virtual worlds allowing us to transcend kind of our social categories and social norms in the real world. But what’s happening is that there’s a stereotype. It turns out to be false, but via play, we create this virtual world where women do appear to prefer to heal, where via play, this false stereotype becomes true.

IDEAS: The vast majority of online interaction doesn’t involve an avatar. What are the main points in your research that could be broadened out to other forms of online activity, like dating or debating politics?

YEE: I think the avatar is a particularly powerful thing, and it actually changes the game and the way that people interact with each other....Without the avatar, a very different set of dynamics come into play. You get more of the anonymity effects, and the polarization effects, the flame wars, the trolling, people taking very strong opinions because they don’t see who each other are.


IDEAS: In the book, you mention an online environment where people who talk the most grow larger and larger compared to everyone else. It sounds like there’s a lot of potential in games to show people stuff they wouldn’t know otherwise.

YEE: Virtual worlds are exciting precisely because we don’t have to follow the physical laws of the offline world; we can break them however we want. We can make people taller or shorter, invisible, bigger, and really play with social interaction cues....[For example,] it’s easy to defer retirement saving. So one researcher, Hal Hershfield, used virtual worlds to bring the future forward. He had people’s photographs, and he wrapped them on an avatar face, so it matched the bone structure and the facial features, and then he digitally aged them by 40 years. He did this with undergrad students, and he had them interact via virtual mirror with their older self....Once you see your older self, you’re more willing to put aside your current earnings for retirement.

IDEAS: For folks developing one of these online worlds, what advice would you give about how best to improve things?

YEE: A few years ago, as an April Fool’s joke, “World of Warcraft” said that they were going to introduce a two-headed ogre into the game, that two players would be forced to play a single two-headed ogre character together in tandem. And everyone kind of dismissed that idea. But I think what’s interesting is we’re kind of stuck in this one-to-one assumption in virtual worlds—that [it’s] one person, one avatar. But take the movie “Pacific Rim,” for example, where the entire premise is that you have two people who have to interact in tandem to control a really unwieldy robot.


I think there are potential game play mechanics that we’re not exploring....Both in terms of game play and in terms of corporate work, I think there’s a lot more to be explored when we break free of that one-to-one assumption.

Jesse Singal can be reached at jesse.r.singal@gmail.com.