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The Social Life of Avatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments

Ralph Schroeder
Springer Verlag: Berlin
1852334614 (pb)

222 pp

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Front Cover
I suspect that for many sociologists the words 'Virtual Reality'(VR) conjure up images of humans wearing futuristic goggles navigating their way around fictional landscapes with a joystick, or participating in military exercises or medical 'telepresence' operations. Indeed in the early 1990s, the focus on 'immersion' and the development of head mounted display systems was top of the VR engineering research agenda. Yet more mundane VR environments which can be accessed via nothing more sophisticated than a keyboard and screen of a desktop PC have been developed for Internet users. Many of these virtual worlds involve the user being represented by a graphical figure or 'avatar'.

Sociologists of technology have become interested in avatars both as examples of bodily representation and bodily practices. As is evident having read this collection, one of the major features of the social life of avatars is their owners' desire to manipulate and change their appearance. In fact in some virtual worlds, changing one's representation of self constitutes the majority of activity in that space, suggesting that avatars are a key way to understand the social in such locations.

This collection of articles largely covers the more recent VR environments, although the editor Ralph Schroeder has included two chapters that are concerned with head mounted displays. Rejecting the individualistic bias of the single user VR scenario, Schroeder has selected articles that report on 'Shared Virtual Environments' or 'systems in which users can also experience other participants as being present in the environment and interacting with them.' (p. 2). For several authors, the idea of shared space is crucial, as it is the way in which the sociality of the space is established. For example in the article by Becker and Mark, the authors set out to discover whether virtual spaces do in fact have shared social conventions. They conclude that they do, and suggest that as a consequence 'technology may have an integrative social effect, and we propose that it might even counteract the tendencies of fragmentation and individualization in modern societies.'(p. 36). What is interesting here is the way in which 'social conventions' are separated from and contrasted to 'fragmentation and individualization', and that one can somehow counteract the other.

Other authors do not make such ambitious sociological claims. Indeed, this being an interdisciplinary collection, the epistemological and methodological grounds on which claims are made about 'social life' vary widely. There are several accounts that are largely anecdotal, contrasting quite starkly with the chapters that are quite carefully linked to the theoretical literature or empirical investigation. Although this might appear initially to be a flaw in the collection, in fact I think that it reflects the nature of an unusual field. In virtual world design many producers reflect about their work practices, and the boundary between researching and building a virtual world is frequently hazy. In this vein Jakobsson reflects on a case of hacking an environment that he created as part of The Palace system at Umeň University in Sweden, and how the ensuing investigation challenged the assumption (by now teetering on the edge of plausibility for even the most optimistic pundits) that everyone is equal on the Internet.

Schroeder does an excellent job of showing the scope of current debates in the introductory chapter, and this is one of the most useful pieces in the collection. He explains how the ideas of presence and co-presence have dominated many of the debates about VR, and suggests that an approach derived from Goffman may be the best starting point to explain the sociality observed in shared virtual environment. More specifically, he draws upon Goffman's Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Frame Analysis (1974) to propose that researchers consider the frames of social interaction. This section provoked me to wonder whether the book should be used by students studying Goffman, as well those studying the sociology of technology. Certainly it would be an interesting teaching exercise to have students read the Goffman texts in conjunction with Schroeder's chapter and practical exercises in a shared virtual environment.

The other chapter that I suspect might become widely used by sociologists outside the sociology of technology is Taylor's careful discussion of embodiment in The Dreamscape, a long standing and popular virtual environment. Her key point is that presence must be understood as an embodied activity. This counters some of the other chapters which appear to be written from a more cognitive or traditional human factors perspective, and which therefore will appear at odds with much of contemporary sociological thinking, at least in the UK. Taylor tackles some longstanding issues which impact on methodology as much as data analysis, such as how users describe (and therefore how researchers investigate) the relationship between the 'real' self and the 'avatar' self. Some users report that their avatar representation seems to express their true self more than their traditional bodily features. Others claim the reverse. Taylor also raises the issue of gender and the anxieties around sexual orientation in The Dreamscape, most of which runs with an indisputably heteronormative logic. In an 'Avatar Auction', users are expected to bid on inworld dates with other users of the opposite sex. In the extract of logged text, which Taylor reproduces, this event provokes a gay man to protest and then leave the space, saying "I'm going to get my female avatar"(p. 59). His threat highlights both the assumptions of the auction, but also the ease by which he could participate, albeit by denying the feasibility of same sex relationships. I think this chapter would be useful for courses on the sociology of the body, as well as the sociology of gender relations.

Whereas Taylor used ethnographic observation and in-world interviews, amongst other techniques, a more quantitative approach is taken in the two chapters by the researchers from the Microsoft Research Laboratories. In the second one of these pieces, Smith and his team assess the social dynamics of the chat rooms in the Microsoft V-Chat graphical chat system. A web-based survey was offered to 150 participants, and data logs were also collected from chat rooms for 119 days. Their analysis suggests that there is a positive correlation between the use of 3D features and the quantity of messages posted, and that frequent users are more likely to have customized avatars. Both of these confirm Taylor's findings, although Smith's chapter does not have the space to report about the importance users place on features or messages.

Overall this is a mixed collection, and I have purposefully concentrated on the more sociologically informed contributions. There is a tiny amount of literature available on the experiences of avatar users (rather than of the tester or usability expert), and in these terms Schroeder has made a crucial intervention. I suspect students who are conducting their own research online will find many of the chapters useful in working out their own methodological rationales. I hope that the field continues to grow and mature as massive multiplayer gaming environments such as Everquest and The Sims Online bring the issues of avatar use to even more prominence.

Nina Wakeford
University of Surrey

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