Radio Berkman 146: The Early Days of the Avatar

March 11th, 2010

Millions of people are now interacting in virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft using the guise of avatars. In these spaces, users can actually design their avatars to be subtly or radically different from who they are in real life.

And it turns out how people interact through their avatars – the signals they give one another through conversation and appearance – can tell us a lot about the choices and biases that inform our behavior in the real world.

Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has been doing a number of experiments with people, avatars, and virtual worlds. As avatars become more common and more useful outside of gaming – people are already using avatars for virtual workplaces, customer service, and advertising – questions of ethics, trust, and honesty become significantly more important.

After all, it’s one thing if your avatar is casually conversing with, battling, or dating another avatar who might not be what he or she seems in real life. It’s quite another when corporations or political candidates realize that they can handcraft an avatar to take advantage of your biases and earn your trust for their own purposes.

Jeremy sat down with Judith Donath – who leads the Berkman Center’s Law Lab Spring 2010 Speaker Series: The Psychology and Economics of Trust and Honesty – to talk more about this fascinating topic.

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Reference Section:
Watch the segment featuring the work of Jeremy and the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford
Watch Jeremy’s recent talk at the Berkman Center
Notes from the talk from Judith Donath

CC Music:
Jaspertine: “Pling”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user bettinatizzy

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Radio Berkman 146: Avatar – The Early Years

When Jeremy Bailenson talks about Avatars, he’s not talking about the 10 foot tall blue creatures who inhabit Pandora. Though the vision of James Cameron is not that far off from the what you might see today.

In virtual worlds like Second Life and the World of Warcraft users virtually inhabit bodies radically different from their own, gaining powers that far exceed the constraints of reality.

Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab spends his days studying human beings, and how they engage with avatars and virtual worlds. And it turns out, according to Bailenson’s experiments, people don’t just turn to their avatars as an escape from reality. When people come away from the Avatar experience and re-engage with the real world, they take a little bit back from the virtual world with them.

For instance – People who virtually chow down on a fake feast as their avatars – actually experience the feeling of being full in real life. Young children – when shown digitally manufactured images of themselves swimming around with fish – will have false memories of the experience as if it had actually happened. When two human controlled avatars are pitted against each other in a negotiation – the avatar depicted as taller will usually win the argument – regardless of the actual height difference between the real folks behind the avatars.

These kind of experiments raise questions about trust, honesty, and representation – questions that we can expect to encounter as our interactions become more and more virtual. Who’s behind the avatar who coaxes me to run another mile on the treadmill at the gym? Why do they look and sound vaguely like the angry Russian fencing coach I had in college? If an avatar can take advantage of what it knows about me to change my behavior in one way, could avatars also be designed to get me to buy, date, vote, and feel in a completely pre-determined way?

Judith Donath sat down with Jeremy after a recent talk he gave to the Law Lab at the Berkman Center to chat about some of his lab’s experimentation, and what it means for the future of human interaction.


Jeremy Bailenson is the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. You can find out more about their work, catch a talk by Jeremy, and find links to video from Jeremy’s recent appearance on PBS’ Frontline – by visiting us on the web at

This episode was produced by me, Daniel Dennis Jones, with Judith Donath at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Watch the segment featuring the work of Jeremy and the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford…
The Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford
Jeremy’s recent talk at the Berkman Center…
Judith’s notes from the talk…

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Steve  |  April 7th, 2010 at 11:34 am

    I just had to let you know that I found your article quite interesting. Although I don’t know that I agree with your observation that “People who virtually chow down on a fake feast as their avatars – actually experience the feeling of being full in real life” and things like that, I have found that people are far too trusting of virtual avatars.

    I’ve played World of Warcraft for a very long time and people are more likely to be trusting of a female avatar I may create (even though I’m a guy) than a male avatar. A male avatar can beg for gold for days and get nothing whereas a female will have no trouble earning more gold — even though the same physical person is using the same technique to get it.

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