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.

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