LMU’s Chance @Second Life
Opening Up Research Studies to the World (Wide Web)
An LMU professor pushes for more survey work to be conducted inside the immersive Internet
By Jeremy Rosenberg
LMU psychology professor Dr. Richard Gilbert says that his field is sometimes criticized as being “the scientific study of the college freshman.” Why? Because of the tradition of mandating that students taking introductory level classes —i.e., captive audiences — fill out the survey forms on which psychologists then often base their research findings.
Well, real life, meet Second Life. Gilbert believes that by working inside that popular immersive 3-D Internet environment, and others similar to it, professors, students, and others now have the opportunity to establish a new, affordable and far more expansive research paradigm.
“[One] advantage of going in the virtual world as opposed to doing a subject pool,” Gilbert says, referring to those introductory course survey forms, “is that you would have a much wider sample of people.”
Gilbert knows first-hand of what he speaks. The professor and his team of four honors students recently surveyed the avatars of 860 subjects for Gilbert's P.R.O.S.E. Project – Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments (see “LMU @ Second Life,” Vistas Summer 2009). The surveying occurred via virtual computer stations set up inside one of the virtual buildings located on LMU’s virtual Psychology Island campus. The surveying took only one week to complete — a relative blink of the eye for such a large volume — and Gilbert and his team had to turn away would-be volunteers once they reached their budget ceiling.
“We have people from 18- and 19-years-old to people in their 60s and 70s,” Gilbert says. “We have men, women; [people from] four different continents, 12 countries; different races, religions.”
P.R.O.S.E. participants were paid in Linden dollars, Second Life’s official currency, which were transferred to their Second Life bank accounts. The cost per subject — given the Second Life-to-U.S. dollar at the time— was less than four dollars for one hour’s worth of survey work.
“If you want to do real life research outside of the university,” says Gilbert, “usually you have to pay your subjects. I don’t know of any researcher who can get by paying their subjects $3.81 per hour.”
Gilbert’s research is specific to the immersive web, so his studies regarding demographics, mental health characteristics and real life vs. SL principles of psychology all needed to be conducted in-world. But the (virtual) door is now wide open both to research about non-Web behavior and test subjects from almost anywhere around the world.
On Psychology Island, banks of computers sit idle, ready to welcome avatars for new studies.
Choosing an AvatarOne fascinating aspect of Second Life is that users, or “human drivers” have a wide variety of appearances they can choose when deciding how they will be represented as avatars in their Second Life representation. We asked John David N. Dionisio, who is assistant professor of computer science and a faculty member involved in the LMU Second Life project, to talk about why people choose particular avatars, and why he chose a female avatar.—The Editor
Do people in Second Life tend to choose avatars that look the way they would like to look: muscular and handsome, for men, or lithe and beautiful for women? And why do some people choose creatures to represent themselves?
Based on what I’ve seen, this tendency appears to be as individual as the users are. I’ve seen everything from close facsimiles to supermodels (both male and female) to Santa Claus, from people of varying backgrounds. If there seems to be any correlation at all, it’s based on a combination of the human driver’s overall experience with the technology, plus how much time they have in customizing his or her avatar. While the technology has gotten more approachable, it still does take work and time to envision an avatar and to realize it. Or, it can take money and time, since one can shop for avatar skins then purchase them. Either way, a certain investment is involved, the degree and type of which appears to determine the final, chosen avatar.
You’ve chosen an avatar of the opposite gender than your own. Why? Is that common in Second Life?
As with the first question, I can only speak for myself here. Because my focus is the technology behind these online systems, I’ve always tended to choose representations that are as diametrically different from my “real” self as possible. This carries beyond 3-D environments; even in non-3-D online systems, I tend to choose usernames or IDs that are completely unrelated to my real name. I guess it’s an extension of the old “because I can” or “because it’s there” perspective. Other folks who make similar choices as I do seem to share this characteristic as well: They maintain a separation between themselves and the technology, and approach the technology from the perspective of “How can I push it” instead of “How can it represent me.”
You don't seem concerned about what other Second Life users may think if they learn that you are male though your avatar is female. Is that true in Second Life in general? Is Second Life an environment where the culture has estalished a norm that the actual physical characteristics of human “drivers” aren't terribly relevant to the interactions that their avatars have with other avatars?
I think it boils down to what a Second Life user is seeking when they sign up. Those who truly view SL as a “second life” will likely design avatars that resemble themselves more closely. Those who see SL as a "role-playing" environment, where they can try out other personas, will probably create more divergent avatars. My own focus on the technology behind the system has the latter effect, but, as mentioned previously, for different reasons. A recent wrinkle in SL has been the introduction of voice chat — the ability to communicate with your own voice through a computer microphone. This dims the illusion for those who create divergent avatars. My female avatar, for instance, “speaks” with my male voice. So far this has not bothered folks I’ve met in SL, but then again, the group I’ve interacted with is somewhat self-selected.