Most people reading this blog post will have an avatar. Many will have several. These include the images and characters we upload and create for our blogs, email profiles and on the social networking and game site we frequent. Avatars range from traditional photos (e.g. head shots) to custom images all the way to personalized animated characters. Many of the people we interact with on-line will only know us visually through our avatars.
The avatars we select or create can impact how we think, feel and behave in cyberspace. The effects can be pronounced. For example, recent research at Penn State suggests that when we customize our avatars we impact our perceptions on the virtual environments we are in. More specifically:
“A group of students who saw that a backpack was attached to an avatar that they had created overestimated the heights of virtual hills, just as people in real life tend to overestimate heights and distances while carrying extra weight…”
This leads to the belief that you would have more difficulty climbing a virtual hill.
Students that were assigned an avatar with a backpack did not feel this way. This suggest we are really putting ourselves into our avatars (agency) as we customize and design them.
Bottom line for designers- tuning when and how people can customize their avatars may produce specific cognitive effects.