Metaverse Avatars: What is the Proteus Effect?

“The Proteus effect describes a phenomenon in which the behaviour of an individual, within virtual worlds, is changed by the characteristics of their avatar.”

It was first explored by Jeremy Bailenson and Nick Yee, two Stanford researchers, back in 2007 but mirrors real world experience where various physical characteristics, like attractiveness and height, can be associated with more positive social and professional outcomes. For example tall people are often stereotyped to be more dominant, and attractive people have been found to be paid 10–15% more than their colleagues due to the added confidence this can give them — it’s referred to as the “beauty premium”. This complements other real world studies where it has been shown that clothing can impact behaviour — if you’ve ever held a clipboard or worn high vis then you know the immediate power rush you feel and how others begin to treat you with more respect.

What’s notable though is that in the virtual world, and unlike in real life, you can almost infinitely customise your avatar to get creative and define a whole new virtual you. So if you’re short IRL then you can be 6+ foot in the metaverse and if you’ve got any beauty insecurities you can digitally filter them out to be an airbrushed version of yourself. You can also make yourself look like a dragon, have an aura of sparkling bitcoins or have colour changing hair. The opportunities for your avatar are expansive and many break what’s possible in the real world.

However, under the Proteus Effect, the traits you pick for your avatar have been found to correlate to your behaviour in the metaverse and how others perceive you.

In Yee and Bailenson’s study they found that:

  • Participants assigned to more attractive avatars were more intimate and open with other participants. They both stood closer (virtually) to other participants and disclosed more about themselves.
  • Participants assigned to a taller avatar behaved more confidently in a negotiation task and showed more assertive, dominant behaviours.

Interestingly this translated not only to their virtual world interactions but also within subsequent face to face situations!

So what could this mean for our own behaviour in the metaverse and how others perceive us when our avatar takes a form which has real world stereotypes attached, or more philosophically, what could it mean when our virtual personas break the mould of what’s possible IRL?

We may see users changing their avatar form depending on the situation they are in and how they need to be perceived, and we may see new virtual stereotypes start to evolve which could impact the types of wearables people purchase and the connotations they have. This would generate a whole new digital psychology and meta-anthropology, and maybe even new virtual jobs with fashion stylists/advisors who can help you design your avatar for maximum impact.

Benefits and Drawbacks

There’s clear benefits avatar customisation could bring in terms of self expression, the ability to unleash your identity creativity, the possibility for avatars to be designed to connect on a deeper level to their audience and the opportunity this creates for more diversity and inclusion in avatars which could possibly translate to lived-virtual experience and greater empathy and understanding. When thinking about the Proteus effect, a shy person could utilise a taller avatar in order to try to embrace a more confident digital persona, or someone with body insecurities could alter their avatar to a form which they feel more comfortable with.

However there’s also already concerns that I can see from this; what could it mean for cultural appropriation as people ‘take on’ avatar forms outside their real world identity, will real world beauty standards permeate into the metaverse and push avatars to digitally confirm or risk being shunned, will some people feel forced to hide their true identity in their avatar due to how certain characteristics are received IRL and what will this do to their sense of identity and self worth in the real world?

Then when thinking about how your avatar may impact your real world behaviours; could violent in-game avatar behaviour translate into the real world and could the ease in which you can change your appearance lead to an enhanced “keyboard warrior” effect where the individual feels disjoined from their actions since they can easily hide behind a new identity? In addition, does the exclusive and expensive nature of many wearables mean that those who can’t afford them feel lower self worth in the metaverse and are treated as less important by others virtually around them? Could this lead to a class system within the metaverse based on what wearables you can afford to equip your avatar with or how your customise it?

Proteus Effect Protections

We may want to consider some mitigations we have for this in the real world — for example, to ensure equal opportunities in UK schools, the concept of a uniform was introduced as far back as 1552 to ensure that students were treated equally and ready to learn. Possibly we’ll see the introduction of uniforms across the metaverse to help foster a similar ethos, especially in circumstances where the fair treatment of avatars has some special importance.

We may also start to see attitudes developing towards social acceptability of avatar customizations in certain situations and locations. For example, I recently attended a careers fair in Decentraland and did feel a little discomfort at being in a professional virtual setting in a glitter ball suit and neon glowsticks! We may start to see dress codes at events and in specific locations to help attendees adopt the desired mindset of the time and place.

Some metaverse may limit the avatar customisation to reduce the creative options for users and try to implement avatar equality. However there are obvious drawbacks to this such as the challenge of trying to locate a friend in a digital crowd of thousands of the same avatars. In addition, this may reduce the appeal of joining that particular metaverse since it limits your ability to be creative and showcase your personality — a criticism that many aspiring fashion students have likely levelled against their own school uniform policy!

Finally, we may see technologies which create avatars after scanning your real world face and body. This could ensure that people’s avatar’s better reflect them but unless the digital world challenges and changes common stereotypes, then we risk just transferring real world problems into the metaverse.

Conclusion

As we begin to expand our digital personas and spend more time as avatars, the questions of avatar design and treatment are going to become even more important and complex. It’s clear that there are both benefits and drawbacks with the infinite customisation of avatars but as I have outlined above, we must be careful not to just replicate how we treat each other and behave in the real world — but instead think carefully about how we can promote diversity, inclusion and equality within the digital space, as well as embracing the creative opportunities digital representations of us can bring.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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