Tag Archives: mental health

Avatar embodiment as self-directed therapy

Ignorance is a choice

You might have noticed that the Second Life avatar I’m using for photos has changed. With my SL partner Jakob offline and in the hospital, it’s uncomfortable to use the avatars that feel like “me” — my 9 year old alt and my 4 year old main Kay avatar. They feel too vulnerable. It’s unbearably sad to spend time in the virtual house that we share. I’ve managed to attend the weekly chat salon at Basilique, where my mind is engaged and distracted, but that’s about the limit of what I can do.

Now, I use an alt that I created a couple years ago but never really took out of the box, so to speak. She might as well wear a placard that says, à la Fight Club, “I am Kay’s inner rage.”  Right now she’s a cyborg with an artificial leg and eye, other times she’s punk. She always has a vicious scar across one cheek. She has an arsenal of weaponry and tools of mischief. It gave me great delight last week when she was changing clothes in a room at a public sandbox, two people crowded her, and I deployed a fog machine and released wandering elephants and tigers until they moved. She doesn’t talk to anyone more than replying to an initial greeting, sometimes. She embodies my feeling of helplessness and sadness as well as the part of me that wants to blow shit up.  The part of me that surges, narrow-eyed and fangs glistening, whenever I listen to “Want” by Recoil.

Walking around in this avatar helps me handle the frustration that I have no other place to release. It’s not fun and I don’t sign on daily, but it gives me a safe space to be angry and aggressively anti-social and unpleasant. I can’t carry those feelings with me every hour of the day and I need to work through them. This suits my personality more than seeking a support group and it spares my husband hours of my sulking or mourning.

Yesterday, Jakob had radiation therapy for the metastasized tumor in his brain. I have no idea what the doctors are telling him about what’s next, but let’s hope that the side effects don’t diminish his quality of life too badly. My planned trip to visit him, already booked, is in sixteen weeks.


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Does cultural dissonance effect how we value virtual worlds?

I’m a member of the Society for Medical Anthropology, but I don’t often see research in that field that intersects with my interest in digital anthropology. So, I was curious to read “‘I Swear to God, I Only Want People Here Who Are Losers!’ Cultural Dissonance and the Allure of Azeroth“* in the December issue of Medical Anthropology Quarterly.


The researchers consider whether some World of Warcraft players compensate for a lack of success in their offline lives by seeking glory online (related to the image of “gamers as losers”), but then narrow their focus to whether it is the differential between offline/online success that contributes to gameplay having therapeutic/addictive qualities. In other words, they don’t assume that every WoW player is a loser. However, they propose a concept of “cultural dissonance”, which they define as “how gamers’ subjective well-being is affected by conflicts between socially valued online and offline lives, and subsequent attempts to equilibrate through psychological negotiations and revaluations.”

They began with a couple of hypotheses, which I’ll restate. First, they guessed that the amount of dissonance between online and offline success would be correlated with gamers’ perceptions that WoW has both a positive and negative role in their lives. For some, playing could provide gratification that was lacking offline, but the pull to feel that gratification could lead to problematic, excessive gameplay. Second, they hypothesized that the dissonance would be related to how much players valued WoW, which is then connected to mental health. Being more successful online increases the perceived value of WoW time, justifying increased gaming even when it interferes with offline commitments.

Their method used participant-observation, interviews, and surveys. Their quantitative analysis supported their hypotheses: cultural dissonance was associated with both positive and negative outcomes of WoW play, and the degree of dissonance was correlated with the perceived value of the players’ WoW virtual lives. In straightforward terms — mine, not the researchers — if I feel that I’m more successful online than offline, I’ll prioritize my online life higher. That can have beneficial therapeutic effects, but the scales can shift enough that offline life and mental health suffer.

I don’t think this is surprising to anyone who has spent a lot of time in a persistent virtual world, but that middle step explaining how each existence (offline/online) is valued is important and interesting. We might have multiple lives across physical and virtual worlds, yet there is still only one animating consciousness behind them all, and that consciousness is limited in time. Trying to achieve endgame goals in an MMORPG or running a virtual business or having an active social life online are immersive activities that necessarily use time that not lived deeply in the physical world. Dissonance that shifts how we value each life might come from increased perceived success in either physical or virtual realm. The study didn’t look at this, but I’ve certainly had lots of friends whose lives started to boom offline, leading them to detach from their online lives. When you only have so much time in a day and one consciousness, that shifting of value and balance is essential. That balance, however, is necessarily weighted toward the physical world. Our physical lives require constant maintenance: acquiring food and drink, sleeping, obtaining income to meet needs and obligations, etc.

The title of the article is a quote from a WoW gamer making the point that to run endgame raids, he wanted dedicated teammates without other obligations. “I swear to God, I only want people here who are losers! I don’t want people who have jobs or school!” I think it’s possible to have rich, satisfying, and successful lives in both physical and virtual spaces, but it involves frequent negotiation. Social demands come from both spaces. I’ve been in MMORPG guilds where casual players were treated badly and there was non-stop peer pressure to do endgame group activities at hours that would be almost impossible for someone with a family or job. I’m not sure that someone with an objectively successful offline life could keep up with that. On the other hand, I’ve known plenty of people who can’t imagine that a person perceived as successful in the physical world would “waste time” in virtual worlds. I think that’s connected to the “gamers as losers” trope, because I doubt they’d think the time was wasted if virtual world activities were rephrased as, “hanging out with friends, doing some creative projects, running a small business, shopping, and visiting artistic installations.”

In their conclusion, the researchers touched on some different methods used in studying virtual worlds. It’s an important section, since the question of whether virtual lives should be ethnographically examined as separate from physical lives can be debated. When I gave presentations about a particular aspect of roleplay in Second Life, I carefully avoided the question of why people chose that roleplay. My research was inside SL and I was studying behavior there, not the behavior of the people on the other side of the keyboards. The authors of this article state:

We appreciate how recent ethnographers of virtual worlds — such as Boellstorff (2008) in his study of Second Life — have studied them from entirely within the persistent virtual world in question as cultures in their own right and not mere expressions of the actual world. Still, to address patterns of wellness and distress in WoW gamers’ lives, we have followed others and tried to understand how gamers’ WoW experiences intersect with offline ones (Nardi 2010; Schiano et al. 2011; Snodgrass et al. 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2012, 2013; Taylor 2006).

Both are valid but different anthropological approaches.


* Jeffrey G. Snodgrass, H. J. Francois Dengah, Michael G. Lacy. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Vol 28, Issue 4, pp. 480-501.

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Posted by on January 1, 2015 in Gaming, Health - Mental & Physical, Research


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Scientific debunking of brain training games

Stanford University released a statement about the brain training industry signed by 69 scientists last week, which Gizmodo addressed with the aptly titled Lumosity’s Brain Games Are Bullshit. People have been criticizing Lumosity’s claims about “neuroplasticity” and “making your brain brighter” for years.


Though I think Lumosity began with the best of intentions and believed that their research could be extrapolated to larger results, it’s really just a hugely overpriced collection of basic task games. The claims have been toned down over time, to the point where they now say only that using Lumosity on a regular basis will make a person better at Lumosity. That’s useful. I would expect to improve at any game I played regularly, but it doesn’t mean it would make calculus seem easier.

In fact, recent research pitted Lumosity against Portal 2, and Portal 2 was the clear winner. In a study involving 77 undergraduate students, the researcher found that those who were selected to play Portal 2 performed better on cognitive tests after gaming, but those selected to play Lumosity games actually performed worse on a couple tests. With a study that small and in a population where Portal 2 has more social cachet than a brain training game, I doubt that the results are really significant, but they do suggest that Lumosity isn’t the answer. This Nerdist post about the study asks a useful question, “if playing a problem-solving game actually can increase your cognitive performance in some way, what are brain training games missing, and what is Portal 2 getting so right?”

Brain training games are an appealing concept. There’s a huge market of people who fear losing cognitive ability as they age or are just hoping for more sharpness. Lumosity’s website states they have over 60 million members, and with prices ranging from $4.99-$14.99/month depending on length of subscription, a lot of money is involved. Wouldn’t it be nice if just playing small games would improve our mental abilities on a wide range of tasks? The signatories on the Stanford statement had this very reasonable recommendation:

Much more research needs to be done before we understand whether and what types of challenges and engagements benefit cognitive functioning in everyday life. In the absence of clear evidence, the recommendation of the group, based largely on correlational findings, is that individuals lead physically active, intellectually challenging, and socially engaged lives, in ways that work for them. Before investing time and money on brain games, consider what economists call opportunity costs: If an hour spent doing solo software drills is an hour not spent hiking, learning Italian, making a new recipe, or playing with your grandchildren, it may not be worth it. But if it replaces time spent in a sedentary state, like watching television, the choice may make more sense for you.


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Posted by on October 24, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical, Research


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Short documentary on virtual reality treatment of PTSD

Motherboard published this 20 minute documentary in March, but I just stumbled across it today (thanks GoodShit – NSFW). I’ve met a lot of people with PTSD or mental illness who use virtual worlds as part of their coping strategies, as well as some in formal virtual reality treatment programs. It’s incredibly powerful to be in a safe physical location and to explore the roots of ongoing anxiety. For some, a virtual world or game — outside of treatment — is also a way to interact with other people without feeling panic or self-consciousness from a temporary or lifelong condition.

The video focuses on customized VR environments for combat veterans – possible trigger warning.


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Analysis of Facebook posts correlated with personality traits

Check the word cloud below.  What personality characteristics would you expect in people who use these with high frequency?


If you said that they are “characterized by traits such as being unintelligent, unanalytical, unreflective, uninquisitive, unimaginative, uncreative, and unsophisticated”, then you’ve probably already read the recent research from the World Well-Being Project or one of the recent articles about it (this one at The Atlantic is a good place to start if you’re interested).  For the tl;dr folks: the WWBP recruited volunteers, had them take personality tests, then collected their posts on Facebook.  They used language analysis to make word clouds from those posts parsed on various factors, including groupings from the personality tests.  The people whose posts formed the cloud above scored low on the “Openness to Experience” trait.

From a social science point of view, the first thing I noticed about the cloud above was the Tagalog, probably because I’ve met a lot of Pinoy while gaming.  That immediately made me wonder about the cross-cultural validity of the tests they’re using.  They recruited English-speaking participants but didn’t limit the research to English language posts. I’ve skimmed their paper and didn’t see any recognition of foreign words.  None of the other category clouds show this effect.  I think that, at least for the Openness trait, the research is questionable.

Otherwise, I find these marginally interesting with few surprises. There’s more swearing, violent, and negative language in posts from those who score low in Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, and Emotional Stability. Well, of course. The prevalence of “anime” and “manga” in the Introversion word cloud makes me feel old, but since those are also common conversation topics in MMORPGs, where introverts can socialize more comfortably, I don’t find that surprising either.  The WWBP has a simple and quick page where you can view the various clouds by personality type.

This reminds me that I need to stop slacking on my own research project and get back to data collection, though. Language analysis will play a large role and it’s always useful to think critically about other research to improve my own.

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Posted by on August 19, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical, Research


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Gaming will not turn you into a psychopath

Why Online Games Turn Players into Psychopaths is the silly headline of a WIRED article published yesterday. The author writes about behavior in the open, dangerous worlds of DayZ and Rust, and specifically his transition from helpful and cooperative to naked murderer.  He keeps using the term “virtual worlds”, but I think he’s talking about worlds where violence is built into the game design. His sweeping statements would only apply to a tiny group I’ve met in an open virtual world like Second Life; much closer to the stat given in the article that 1% of the RL population is psychopathic.


Feeling antisocial in a land of gigantic crows and tiny feet

The author doesn’t seem to grok that he’s writing about worlds where survival may depend on killing before being killed, so what he sees as psychopathic behavior can be strategic gameplay. In the games that he mentions, those cold-blooded and cruel killers are the ones that are having fun and are still alive, which means even more since death is permanent (there’s no “Continue”; a player must restart with a new character). Building a nonviolent commune in DayZ isn’t going to end well. On the other hand, that could be the model for a successful community in SL, where violence is limited to certain areas and griefing or harassment could result in an account ban.

At one point the author asks, “Are our actions in a virtual world tantamount to imagining those things we could do in real life but never would? Or are we merely behaving as we would in real life if there were no consequences for our actions?”  Inhibitions are lower online, especially for those who maintain anonymity (John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory certainly applies to some). Online anonymity can be like Plato’s Ring of Gyges scenario: in The Republic, Glaucon asserts that even a just man would use a ring of invisibility to do unjust things, because it would be foolish to do otherwise. However, except for the tiny percentage of true psychopaths among us, we bring qualities like empathy and a sense of right and wrong with us when we enter virtual worlds. We might stretch our definitions and act far beyond our RL orientations, but I suspect that most of us still act within the perceived social contract of that online space. Most, not all.

On a tangent, there is a section of the article that resonates with my thoughts about the awful new player experience in Second Life.  The author interviews a notorious thrill-killer from DayZ:

He says players in games like DayZ and Rust devise elaborate ways to abuse others because the open-ended nature of these games leaves them bored if they don’t create their own goals.

“Normally, when you log into a game, the game communicates its rules to you,” Kalle says. “If we both jump onto a Call of Duty server, the rules are there. It’s agreed that we’re going to kill each other. DayZ doesn’t give you goals, it just gives you tools.”

Thus, Kalle and his friends create their own fun. That might mean manipulating, abusing or even killing other players one day and helping them the next.

The open-ended nature of a virtual world is a two-edged sword. It’s full of opportunities, but without guidance it’s easy to fall into boredom or mischief. I think SL’s new member experience could benefit from some gamification. Rules, challenges, and rewards.  Some of that used to exist with the initial tutorial, but not anymore. The answer is not in guiding new residents to classes at Caledon Oxbridge or other places, though those are useful.  How addictive would Candy Crush be if you had to schedule hours of real time to attend classes before you could understand Level 2?

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Posted by on May 27, 2014 in Culture, Gaming


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When the avatar outlives the human behind it

What happens to our digital existence when our physical existence is gone? I don’t mean this as a morbid topic but rather one that is increasingly important to consider and growing more broad all the time.  I began thinking about online memorials and quickly found myself falling down the rabbit hole into a huge mess of intertwined ideas. Frozen Facebook profiles. Digital estate planning. Gravestones with embedded media. Online obituary guestbooks. Friends who vanish from virtual worlds and MMORPGs. The dilemma of sorting through digital files that have been left behind.


Second Life memorial for “The Sojourner”, who died in 2008.

Of course, these aren’t new topics by any means.  It was 1997 when I first received a bulk email from someone I had never met, addressing the people whose names she had found in her husband’s email address book, informing us of the tragic accident which took his life.  He had been a college friend of mine but I had never met his wife. The next year I worked briefly for a start-up that wanted to build memorial websites so that families and friends could have a place online to share stories and photos in perpetuity.  A couple years later, I had the shock of seeing a name appear in my AIM Buddy List: a friend whose funeral I had attended the week before. His girlfriend had turned on his computer and AIM had launched automatically.

I’d like to think and write about many aspects of this, but I’ll start with memorials in virtual worlds. I’ve come across many of these in Second Life. Some are versions of offline memorials for groups of people who were never part of SL: memorials for victims of the Holocaust, Cold War, 9/11 attacks, etc. Others are general memorials for everyone who has died of a specific cause, from cancer to heart disease to suicide. I’ve seen individuals erect memorials for relatives they’ve lost in the real world, like one clothing designer who made a little garden in her store courtyard to honor her mother. Then there are some, like the image above, that remember the online existence of a person who has died. These aren’t limited to virtual worlds; in the MMORPG I played, when a friend died we convinced the game creators to rename an NPC (non-player character) after his avatar.

We may not know all the personal details about our online friends, but that doesn’t mean that our feelings toward them are insincere. Sometimes that incompleteness can make a death even more poignant: there can be a confusing absence before we find out why our friend hasn’t been around.  (I’ll admit that I’ve done nervous web searches when online friends who were sick or in dangerous jobs disappeared for a week or more without warning.) We grieve as honestly as those who knew the offline person, but our opportunity to participate in the rituals of death is not the same. Distance can be a factor, or by the time we find out what happened, the funeral may be long past.  So, we create new rituals, new ways of remembering our friend’s life as we knew it, honoring that existence, and finding closure.

How lovely is that? Of course it’s sad, but it’s also a testament to the relationships we build without necessarily exchanging a physical handshake or hug.

Update: I just noticed that io9 had a post this morning on a related topic.  It’s a good read.  What Should We Do with the Online Undead?

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Posted by on May 21, 2014 in Culture, Health - Mental & Physical


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