Let’s face it: one of the appealing aspects of virtual life is that the body of your dreams is just a few clicks or sliders away, whether the mega-muscled hunks of war games or the lithe yet curvy giantesses of SL. Do those jeans make your ass look too big? No problem: adjust your butt size and save a copy of the shape just for wearing with that outfit. Need a little more cleavage to fill out that blouse? Poof! Done.
I don’t know that enough research has been done on avatar and RL body image and it’s a topic where I would be skeptical of non-gamers or virtual world residents asking the wrong questions. When I was working on a paper about embodiment in virtual spaces last year, I read the existing work on avatar choice and found it unsatisfactory and lacking in depth. In SL there are practical reasons that a limited range of body types are expressed. Most creators design clothing, furniture, and animations to fit the most common sizes, but to expand that range wouldn’t be financially viable. It takes extra dedication to have an atypical avatar, and this fact is underestimated by outsiders who see lots of pretty avatars and write them off as dream fulfillment.
A recent small study on the use of weight loss support activities in Second Life from the University of Kansas Medical Center has been making the news, often with a headline that references the myth that all “gamers” are junk food stuffed sloths who create an idealized self online while devolving in the actual world.
Actually, the study exploited something that has been known for a while, that people can benefit from practicing anxiety-causing activities in safe virtual environments. It’s one of the reasons that virtual reality treatment for veterans with PTSD has seen increased use. MIT anthropologist Sherry Turkle talks about some examples in her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, including a woman with an artificial limb who practices removing it for sex online to increase her comfort with that eventuality in RL and a man who explores his creative side in hopes of being able to better express it offline (Turkle 2011: 212-219). I think her explanations are too functionalist but the virtual practicing is certainly part of the story.
In the KUMC study, dieters who attended support meetings in Second Life lost more weight than those who attended them in real world. Both groups used the virtual environment during the maintenance stage. KUMD plans to build a more comprehensive island for in SL for a second, larger study:
The new island will expand opportunities for the participants. On KUMC Healthy U, avatars will be able to take advantage of restaurants with cashiers that total the amount of calories on customers’ trays as they check out. A kiosk, known as Fast Food Frenzy, will link avatars to the websites of various restaurants, so that they can calculate the calories in their meals.
The new island also includes a more elaborate gymnasium, complete with a swimming pool where avatars can register the calories burned as they swim, tread water or take part in activities in the water. Trainers in the gym will be able to help the research subjects by answering basic fitness questions. Avatars can also access fitness videos while doing their simulated running on treadmills.
I wish them luck and believe there’s a lot of value in habit-building online that translates offline. However, they’ll have to be wary of the unpleasant truth that time spent immersed in one world is time that is no longer available in the other, and I’d wonder if the cumulative time required for both workouts could be a burden. It will be interesting to see.
Another story related to avatars and weight loss is this one from CNN: Avatar inspires gamer to hit the gym. A young man was inspired by his muscular badass EVE Online persona and took the attitude into the real world as motivation to transform himself. I’m not a fan of his characterization of himself and other gamers as “a group of pathetic losers”, but perhaps his self-created brand will inspire others who could use the push.