Today I taught my mom how to use Google Hangouts for video calls so I can better check in on her during the COVID-19 lockdown. At one point, she held up her phone so Piper, her adorable shih-poo puppy, could see my face and hear my voice. Piper seemed happy but confused, pawing at the screen and looking behind the phone for the rest of me. I feel you, Piper. Sometimes I feel that way too, a little unsure of how to interact with modern technology. What is the right way to react to a disembodied head on a screen telling us what to do? The decoupling of our real and virtual selves is an issue that every XR developer must address. This column takes a deeper look at why avatars—i.e., virtual bodies, or representations of people within virtual environments—matter and what we need to consider as we design XR experiences and serious games.
Cartesian Dualism in XR
In the 17th century, René Descartes theorized the separation of mind and body, a theory now known as Cartesian Dualism. XR technologies such as virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and 360-degree video push this Dualism concept to the extreme. We each have a physical or real-life body and mind as well as multiple virtual bodies. In some ways, we have multiple virtual minds too, or at least different versions of our actual mind, when we consider the different personalities and shifting perspectives that we adopt in our various online communities and social media profiles. We can identify with and think of our “self” as any one of these bodies or minds, or even varying combinations of them. We can create or choose avatars that look very much like us or very different from us, and we can switch avatars to “become” someone or something else entirely, sometimes altering or even switching our avatars every time we play a video game or XR experience.
If we want to go even deeper down the rabbit hole of XR Dualism, consider that we can’t really tell who (as in, whose mind) is embodied in another avatar that we see within the experience. It could be someone we know, a stranger, or an NPC (non-player character; often controlled by a set of preprogrammed actions, a set of algorithms, or an AI). Even if the avatar represents and is being controlled by someone we know, they may behave differently based on the avatar they’re currently using. For example, they may use a different name and voice, making it difficult to recognize them, or they may act more assertively or take bigger risks than in real life. This is equally as true for us as it is for the other players we encounter.
In short, Cartesian Duality permeates XR in dizzyingly complex ways. Our personal identity fluidly shifts between the myriad representations and embodiments of our real and virtual selves. Given that our personal identities (including beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes, to name a few characteristics of our identities) are closely tied to if and how we learn, avatars play a crucial role in the design of any XR eLearning experience.
Avatar identity ethics
No matter what virtual body we choose to wear, we begin to identify with it. When we have agency and are able to choose or create our own avatar, we tend to identify with it even more. This avatar identification in turn helps us feel a sense of presence within the experience, but it also brings up a host of difficult questions eLearning professionals must consider as we design avatars for every new experience we create. For example:
- Should we design our experiences so that learners can choose from multiple avatars, or even choose their avatar’s characteristics, or would that require far too much time and expense? If we don’t offer that choice, what avatar should we choose for them?
- What meaning do gender, race, age, body type, mobility, etc. hold in XR? How do people from different minority groups answer that question, and what can we learn from them?
- Should we allow or even require learners to use avatars with different genders, bodies, etc. from their own in order to develop empathy, or is that practice invasive, insensitive, or offensive?
- How do animal, robot, and other non-realistic avatars fit into the equation?
- Is it ethical to use an avatar representation of a deceased person? Should we retire avatars after the people they were modeled after have passed on?
- How do we represent people with physical disabilities, such as people in wheelchairs? Can we provide additional accessibility options, such as a lowered height for the visual perspective or point of view for shorter learners or learners in wheelchairs to match their real life experience?
- Should we forego avatars altogether and use generic floating hands, or would that diminish the experience, sense of presence, and the degree to which learners will identify and empathize with their characters?
- What genders, races, ages, body types, etc. do we choose for the NPC (non-player characters) we include in our experiences? Who are the heroes, villains, antagonists, and victims and what messages could these choices send?
In answering these questions, we define what kind of experience our learners will have, which in turn will impact how much and how well they learn.
Emerging from the rabbit hole
After a few minutes, Piper seemed to accept that it was really me on the screen, or at least a virtual avatar version of me, even though I wasn’t there in person. She figured it out, more or less. We all do, eventually.
Take me, for example. After our video call, I quickly made a few posts to two different social media platforms. I then played an online video game and embodied an avatar with characteristics and a name different from my physical self. Thinking about these various representations of me, I realized that I’m not just one or two of these selves at a time. I’m the combination of all of these selves, expressed as the various avatars and perspectives I choose.
The process of temporarily embodying and identifying with each avatar and virtual self is a big part of how we learn. This is precisely why eLearning professionals need to pay careful attention to the use of avatars in XR learning experiences.
Additional food for thought:
For further exploration into how classic philosophies impact modern XR and eLearning technologies, check out my earlier Metafocus column on Gesamtkunstwerk, or “total art.”
I don’t have room to explore these here, but it’s worth pondering how the uncanny valley, deepfakes, virtual twins, and chatbots fit into the XR Dualism equation.
Lastly, many informative, entertaining, and sometimes terrifying films, TV series, and books explore the ethical implications of mind-body Dualism and XR. Here are a few that I heartily recommend:
- Storytelling for Virtual Reality: Methods and Principles for Crafting Immersive Narratives, book by John Bucher
- The Medium Is the Massage, book by Marshall McLuhan
- 3 Essays on Virtual Reality, book by Eliott Edge
- Emerging Ethical Issues of Life in Virtual Worlds, essay collection edited by Charles Wankel and Shaun Malleck
- AR Will Spark the Next Big Tech Platform—Call It Mirrorworld, long-form Wired article by Kevin Kelly
- Black Mirror, Netflix series
- Altered Carbon, novel by Richard K. Morgan and Netflix series adaptation
- Snow Crash, novel by Neal Stephenson
- Ready Player One, novel by Ernest Cline
Feel free to DM me (@matthewsparks on Twitter) for much a longer list of recommendations.
Thank you and stay in touch!
Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic impacts have affected us all in many ways, and this magazine is no exception. Sadly, this will be my last regular Metafocus column, though the occasional future article is not out of the question. If you’ve enjoyed Jenn Gallegos’s and my articles over the years, we will keep writing about the intersection of XR, serious games, emerging technology, and eLearning. Read our blogs, contact us, and stay up to date with our various projects at mattsparks.net and jennifergallegos.tech. We are forever grateful for our time at Learning Solutions, for the insights and edits from our fantastic editor Bill Brandon and the rest of the team, and for each and every one of our readers. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Please be safe and stay in touch!