“The second challenge for data interpretation is the lack of real-world analogues for some kinds of virtual events (Salomon 1994). For example, some virtual worlds permit ‘teleporting’ between locations within the environment (Fields and Kafai 2007). When users teleport, they disappear from one virtual location and appear in another without following a contiguous path. While much of the activity in virtual worlds can be described and interpreted through reference to real-world behaviors (e.g., walking, chatting, buying, etc.), there is no offline action with a situated meaning equivalent to teleporting. Other users present in the virtual environment are unable to determine whether the disappearance of someone’s avatar is due to teleportation, intentional termination of an online session, or an undesired loss of Internet connectivity without explicit communication through the avatar in question (Cherny 1999)” (Feldon 576)

In “Mixed Methods for Mixed Reality: Understanding Users’ Avatar Activities in Virtual Worlds,” David F. Feldon and Yasmin B. Kafai publish the findings of a study on online user activities using a social media site called Whyville, which is aimed at children. After reviewing their report, much of it is not immediately useful to me, as it pertains to the way they designed their study–certainly a valid thing to consider if I undertake a similar project in the future, but for now a bit outside my purview. Still, they did come up with a few interesting results.

It is clear, they present, that these children were invested in the appearances of their avatars: “Not only do avatars’ appearances occupy a great deal of focus for most Whyvillians online, but they also figure prominently in offline conversations when children visit Whyville from computers in the same offline spaces” (588). And yet, this may not be a typical reflection of online avatar construction. Whyville offers “extensive customization of avatar appearances beyond selection from a limited catalog of features,” suggesting that “the meaning constructed by users during their avatar development and interactions is particularly sensitive to the nuances of cultural influences within and across contexts and the desire of individual users to be perceived in certain ways relative to those contexts.” (590).

However, despite great attention being paid to avatars, some assumptions or previous findings may not hold up under this study Feldon and Kafai write, “In contrast to the findings of Taylor (1999, 2006) and Turkle (1995), most participants in the current study did not seem to vest their avatars with deep personal meaning or attributes of identity for personal exploration. Instead, the emphasis tended to be on normative social dynamics on Whyville. Whyvillians largely wanted to be interesting to their peers on the basis of aesthetics and affiliation with popular trends or activities of interest” (589). This suggests that the purpose of avatar construction may have shifted, since earlier studies found different results. Even from a casual analysis, it is likely that those constructing avatars in the 1990s were doing so on a much more raw frontier. There was a less stable social environment online, and we were all inventing the rules as we went–thus, it stands to reason that avatar invention may have been much more personally motivated. With the normalization of online social interaction, it is hardly surprising that constructing an avatar might be governed by the same social trends and pressures as hairstyle and clothing.

Upon reading this study, I find myself sad and somewhat nostalgic for the “frontier days” of the Internet. While it is clear that avatars continue to have meaning, it would seem that greater customization may lead only to increased commodification and social regulation of expression, rather than the creative freedom one might have hoped for.

Citation

Feldon, David F., and Yasmin B. Kafai. “Mixed Methods for Mixed Reality: Understanding Users’ Avatar Activities in Virtual Worlds.” Educational Technology Research and Development 56.5 (2008): 575-93. JSTOR. Web. 20 Apr. 2013.

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