Virtual worlds, yes, but real behaviour

Talking with Rubaiyat Shatner yesterday, he pointed me out to a very interesting article blogged by Hamlet Au, referring to a research paper announced on Terra Nova posted by Nick Yee. On that paper, using some statistical analysis, the researches were able to prove that in Second Life, avatars behave like human beings when keeping interpersonal distance and eye contact, and that the same variations (male/female, indoor/outdoor) that exist in RL can be found in SL as well.

The result is perhaps a bit surprising. We’re used to a cluttered interface, full of IMs, open Inventory boxes, the ubiquous History, sim stats, and perhaps one or two open notecards. Most of the time one is unable to even see with whom they’re talking with, much less keeping interpersonal distance, or eye contact (ie. turning towards the avatar who’s speaking — and what these guys measured was not the “automatic” camera movement which is in-built by LL, but the way you need to use the keys to face the person you’re speaking with, so it’s a deliberate and conscious movement).

I would assume that nobody would care to even attempt to do that. It’s rather pointless — you can still listen to people on History on IM, and you don’t need to “look” at them. And it’s also rather cumbersome, it’s hard to chat and move, since the UI does not help you with that. So nobody in their sane minds should be doing it. Well, ok, I do it all the time, no matter how many windows are open… and well… perhaps all my friends do it as well, at least I see them moving… and… uh… well, even newbies do it… wait a bit. Now that I think 5 minutes about it… everybody does that.

Baffled and puzzled, I went back to Terra Nova and downloaded the PDF. While you can naturally contest the methods used, Nick Yee and his team have proven exactly that. There is a statistically significant number of people that, in spite of everything, really take pains to keep their interpersonal distance and eye contact just like in real life. How strange! Why?

Rubaiyat even went a step further after reading that. Although there is no evidence to support that thesis, it looks like this sort of behaviour — again, in spite of the cumbersome interface! — is actually aided by LL’s interface. So, the camera works “just right” to keep your interpersonal distance at a reasonable focus, and it’s rather easy to check that you’re “just right” in the correct position for interaction (according to the theories measuring interpersonal distance). Now that’s truly uncanny — or is it? Might Linden Lab have taken the necessary camera movements into account to facilitate this sort of “natural” behaviour — in the sense that every human being is supposed to have these distances “written down” in their genes or learned through education? Are LL’s interface developers, after all, much cleverer than we thought?

I have no idea, but I made a simple test. Mac users are notoriously left out of the gaming world, but after reading Brace Coral’s articles on A Tale in the Desert, and finding that these nice guys also have versions for Linux and the Mac, I thought I’d give it a try. Perhaps one of the things that surprised me at their equivalent of the welcome island was a very nice Mentor (*waves* at Eighteen, wherever she might be, since very likely she’s not reading this 🙂 ) whose first question to me, after some very newbie mistakes was: “So do you come from SL as well?” (note that she didn’t write “Second Life”) I truthfully answered “yes” and asked her why she did ask. “Well, my husband and child are on SL as well, and we seem to get so many people from there these days”. Hmm interesting 😉

In any case, I digress. What was truly fascinating to watch was the way the UI of A Tale in the Desert worked. The camera is hopelessly wrong — the way it works will give any SLer a headache. And there is no precise movement, you just click on places to move. What this means, in terms of social interaction, is that it’s almost impossible to get near an avatar and face them. This would be rather pointless to do, since you only have 5 or 6 silly emotes to begin with (a few more to be gained after months of play, I was tolds), and there is almost no way to attract people’s attention. To compensate, you have some sort of “regional” chat — like you can shout across a whole sim, and communication is done that way.

It’s not the place here to discuss the merits of A Tale in the Desert compared to Second Life; it’s a role-playing game where citizens try to gather support for laws to get passed, or feature requests. It’s interesting in that regard. Also, the sun and the water are rather nicely done, and, like on all MMORPGs, you have absolutely fantastic performance — since content is so limited and downloaded to your hard disk anyway. All the rest, well, looks sort of poor. Namely, the “social interaction” bit is almost completely absent. We complain and complain about Second Life, but, as Yee’s research show, in SL at least you have a simulacrum of interpersonal behaviour. It’s not perfect. It’s limited. It’s cumbersome. But it exists, and apparently, if Rubaiyat is right, it was even designed that way.

Yee’s research was limited to SL for several reasons, and one of them might very well be the easy way of using scripting tools just to gather data of people interacting. On most (not all, though) MMORPGs, this would require more manual processing. Still, SL is not absolute perfect in gathering data — you can’t, for instance, tell if an avatar is male, female, or genderless, except by looking at it. But things like SLstats, which fortunately have started to comply with US and EU legislation on the privacy of personal data gathered on the Internet, can show that it’s rather easy to track down interactions.

This naturally will make me think a bit more about the issue of “self” inside virtual worlds, and probably re-read Extropia’s essays once more.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...

  • Hm – I was interested in A Tales Of The Desert, but really, if you’re going to have an RPG where lawmaking is a major point and you need to gather support for your laws (which is certainly interesting) I would say you need to have appropriate social interaction tools, at least if people are meant to be roleplaying. Otherwise you’ve just got a big online game of Nomic or something like that.

    It wouldn’t surprise me at all that SL avatars behave roughly like humans in terms of personal space and movement, though I imagine the distances are a bit greater, everything’s larger in SL after all and the camera angle means that someone a metre away from you seems uncomfortably close. But I routinely wander around trying to get into an appropriate spot to speak to somebody, and I’ve lost count of the number of times people have said “excuse me” after bumping into me entirely accidentally, when we were both quite aware that it was just the clumsiness of the controls.

    Granted that Caledon may be unusual there, but my mainland experience also bears that out. In fact, I recall from living on the mainland that people who *didn’t* do that seemed a little suspicious. If someone doesn’t display a personal attachment to their avatar and respect for yours, by mimicking RL social norms, you wonder what else they might do… SL sociopathy. (Making allowances for very new residents, of course, with their charming habit of walking across everything, completely silent when asked things, and vanishing at random points.)

  • What can I say more, Ordinal? I totally agree with you on *all* points!

    In spite of what you said, A Tale of a Desert seems to be pretty popular. Eventually there are areas where you get better camera controls, who knows.

    The social norms you allude to should really be more studied and researched. There is a good paper on that 🙂

  • Extropia DaSilva

    Great essay, Gwyn!

    Funnily enough, something happened to me in SL not so long ago, that sums up what you talked about. I was speaking to a guy who had recently joined Sl (and I mean ‘recently’, like he had joined an hour ago). Well, anyway, during our conversation, he walked up so close that we were touching, and I took a step back. Well, our social conventions have been pruned by tens of thousands of years-worth of biological and cultural evolution. It’s not all that surprising that we continue to behave similarly through our VR representations.

    I was wondering if you are aware of another seemingly unconscious behaviour that gamers adopt? I can’t remember who first noted this, but basically gamers tend to adopt different postures for the interactive sections of games and the cutscenes that drive the plots. While playing the interactive parts, gamers tend to be sat up, leaning towards the TV. But when the cutscenes kick in, they invariably put down the controller and lie back in a more relaxed fashion.

    Next time you play a videogame, you just might find that you too switch positions as the game moves from interactive gameplay to passive cutscenes:)