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?

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