Primates in Virtual Worlds

No matter how fully-immersed humans are within a virtual world, avatars are primates at heart (and brain.) You can run from physiology and even hide from it, but you can’t escape its influence on your consciousness.

The sense of being embedded in an external virtual world can only be experienced through the internal processes of our neurobiology. As far as your neurons are concerned, there is no substantive difference between seeing a human on earth and viewing an avatar in Second Life.

Here’s a video visualizing the intersection of brain, body and virtual environment. You can read the comic here.

A beautiful thought experiment.

6 thoughts on “Primates in Virtual Worlds

  1. Yes Botgirl!

    In the immortal words of Morpheus,

    How do you define real? If by real you mean what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain

    I do also think that there’s an acceptance or familiarity factor… if you’re sick of BS in the “real” world… or if you’ve had a powerful experience in virtual space… or if like Gracie Kendal virtual space frees you from the baggage and chauvinism of the “real” world… or if like Franco Mattes you believe that a “mask” is a thing you wear to tell the truth… then experiencing the virtual as real isn’t very hard…

    But if your “real” life is going well — by your definition, not mine — then the “fake” or “imaginary” or “play” world may seem unnecessary or self-indulgent to you.

  2. I was trying to describe the mere biological impact, which kicks in as long as someone is immersed to the degree they would be when watching a movie. I agree that some acceptance or familiarity makes a difference. But studies monitoring the physiology of people watching porn, for instance, indicated a biological impact even when the viewer claimed they were not aroused.

    I have no clue whether people who spend a lot of time in Second Life or MMOs like World of Warcraft are more or less socially connected in RL than their non-gaming peers. I suspect that it varies quite a bit. People who love home cooking still enjoy going to to eat, right?

  3. Yes, we act towards avatars like we used to act to our teddy bears and movie characters as a child. They live and have emotions. As a child we never thought about why something feels real, as grown ups we do. Maybe because we want to reassure ourselves over and over again that what we feel is not childish and naïve (like people not familiar with Second Life and comparable virtual surroundings might try to convince us of), but as real as all feelings, longings, connections and experiences are with living beings that are able to interact with us. A teddy bear could not interact, a movie character cannot either, but we do feel connected because we can identify ourselves with those kinds of ‘persons’. Their interaction is being our buddy and partner in some kind of shared existance. Everything that exists and has a meaning to us (whether it talks or not) is a part of our responsive experiences. We can have an emotional bond with a piece of furniture or art work for instance. Not because they talk, but because they represent a part of our lives and feelings. Things can be living things that way . . .

    1. Thanks for adding that dimension to the discussion, Meandra! Ironically, we tend to anthropomorphize objects and objectify people. With avatars it goes both ways. Unlike the teddy bear in your example, there IS a sentient being behind the avatar. On the other hand, we respond to the visual representation of their avatar, which is often very different than their human form.

      As you described, we can be very bonded emotionally to objects, especially when we project some sort of personality into them.

      One reason I started doing work with dolls and action figures instead of avatars is that they are undeniably things, not beings. So whatever sense of person we have from the images is (upon reflection) completely a product of our own minds. I’ll add one or two of them here for my next posts.

      1. Yes Meandr@! Yes Botgirl! I had lunch with Rod Brooks once, and he had an amazing insight (haha, well, I’m sure he’s had A LOT of amazing insights, but he shared this one with me…

        I think we over-anthropomorphize people

        He really blew me away with that… but it made so much sense… that yes, we are all living, sentient beings (more or less, haha) but that so much of my experience of you… is my own projection.

        There are some people who can piss you off with a single word… others can evoke such nurturing impulses from you with as little… for sure that’s partly your knowledge of them and partly the tone and cues they give… but it’s also our projection onto them.

        To be clear I should say that his comment was in the context of AI, we were talking in the context of “will a machine ever” and his thought was that we give humans a lot of credit for things that are often simple or “automatic”

        1. For sure. It cuts both ways. We objectify and project. I think it was Byron Katie who said, “No two people have ever met.”

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