Concordia University has discovered – surprise, surprise – that the character you make online acts a hell of a lot like you do in real life.
At first blush, it sounds like a stint at CU would be grueling – interviewing nerds about their online avatars and fantasy role-playing preferences, talking about elves and magic swords, wishing you’d paid more attention in English class and could now be working in the bright lights of the local McDonald’s.
Guess what? Your sociology degree was actually useful.
This is because of the state of online gaming, so you can thank the Internet for your continued usefulness. Current estimates project that by 2011, 80% of online users - including Fortune 500 companies - will have a virtual representation, or "avatar" online, and many of these will be in games like World of Warcraft, EVE Online and the grand-daddy of real-to-virtual line-blurring, Second Life. Avatars are big, non-nerdy business now.
The joke has often been made that those who play Second Life should probably go out and get a real one first, but the hilarity is starting to lose steam. The Second Life online community is up twentyfold in population from three years ago, now reaching a staggering 15 million users. World of Warcraft also tops out around 10 or 11 million subscribers, and a whole host of other, less well known iterations of the online avatar concept are populated by individuals of every background, political affiliation and religion.
The world of Second Life: NASA actually gets funding here.
The presumption has always been that since these games are intended as an escape from the drudgery of typical reality, gamers, geeks and groupies would create avatars that represented what they aspired to be but could never achieve in their own life.
Little Johnny No-friends should, as per the common wisdom, turn into Mr. Popular online, with his slick online Avatar racking up fake gold and real companionship. Other players should flock to his side, and Johnny should feel as though he finally fits in.
According to the data gathered by Concordia University, Johnny will likely be just as friendless online as off. Poor kid.
CU started by recruiting players of every stripe from Second Life to take a personality questionnaire. Since the game has a thriving community that focuses more on “real” activities and engages in online actual money transfer, it was used as a model analogous to life, just without the need for a 9-5 job that makes one want to die a horrible death.
Players rated their own real-life personalities based on a number of characteristics, and their avatars were then shown to random viewers, with the impression left by their virtual selves being recorded. As it turns out, the random sampling of viewers pegged the avatars as being almost the same in personality as their creators, backed up by the creator’s own evaluation of themselves.
In theory, this type of research should help refine the avatar creation process, giving users the options they want to create a version of themselves that helps them escape reality by being exactly like themselves.
We know our Orc Shaman looks just like us, giant sideburns, chops and all. Plus, we commune with the elements on a regular basis. Hot.