The metaverse won’t grow until we wear our own faces there

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2010

Interesting think-piece from Wagner James Au of New World Notes; he’s wondering if the drop-off of interest in virtual worlds is driven by the very human need to be able to see the real face of the person you’re interacting with. The riff originates from noting that folk in Halloween costumes that hid their faces experienced less engagement and roleplay with others than those in costumes where the face was uncovered:

Without the ability to peek at the person behind the costume, people were largely leery, and standoffish. Many of these face-obscuring costumes were incredibly creative and believable, which you might think would encourage more roleplay. But for the most part, if they couldn’t get a rough idea of the person inside the outfit, people would hold back.

I think we’re seeing a similar effect with virtual worlds, as compared to social games. Most of the biggest social games, like FarmVille, have customized avatars, but the avatar is connected to a real identity, and perhaps even more important, a real face. In effect, social game avatars act like Halloween costumes, where you can see the person inside the outfit. Most avatars in virtual worlds, by contrast, resemble a full body costume where the face is largely or totally obscured. This is probably a major reason why they’ve failed to gain mass adoption. In effect, most of the population is looking at virtual world avatars the same way people at Halloween parties look at costumes that have hidden faces — with interest and curiosity, maybe, but also with some apprehension or unease.

If I’m right, one good way to grow virtual worlds is to make avatars more like casual Halloween costumes, in which you’re able to know a little about the person controlling it. That doesn’t necessarily mean linking the avatar to the owner’s Facebook profile. (In fact I’d suggest linking avatar profiles to dating sites, like OKCupid, would be more productive than Facebook.) Halloween isn’t popular because people want to actually be Bat Man or Sarah Palin or even Pedobear — they want to express a part of their personality in a fun way, in a fun social context where others are doing the same. And above all, have this roleplay connect to the rest of their lives.

It’s a pretty loose thesis at this point, but it does chime with my own experiences in metaverse realities, namely that the anonymity and/or immersive never-out-of-character role-playing aspects that so engage the core demographics of such spaces are actively repellent to others.

I suspect business-sphere interest and investment in metaverse tech will be the necessary developmental catalyst for the sort of transparency Au is suggesting (a sort of video-conferencing on steroids, which might get popular very fast when oil prices start climbing again and flying overseas for meetings becomes an unsustainable overhead), but I also suspect that the heaviest metaverse users will always be those who find the wearing of masks to be a liberation from reality rather than a disconnect from it.

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5 Responses to “The metaverse won’t grow until we wear our own faces there”

  1. LBalsam says:

    I have explored a lot of virtual worlds. Most of them have very little to do except walk or drive around and buy virtual goods. They are also very empty.

    I don;t think the problem is so much ones of avatars as of boredom and lack of activities. Shopping for new clothes, hair, or hoverboards loses its appeal quickly. There is little to do that is social and fun. Building games into these worlds would be a huge step forward.

  2. Wintermute says:

    Virtual Worlds are very much BYOFriends. If you just jack straight into Second Life with your off-the-shelf low-poly Iron Man avatar, you’re pretty much guaranteed to be mass ostracized, a combination of the ugliest face of high school politics and a post-crash mega mall in a foreclosure factory neighborhood.

  3. Buffalo says:

    It’s an interesting concept: people have more fun when others can see them and have some idea who they are. It sort of flies in the face of the whole rise of social media, don’t you think? I don’t personally see most bloggers whose blogs that I read, yet I find them extremely engaging and sometimes I even feel that they’ve become my “friends.” And who even knows if what bloggers say is what they really think, so do I really see tehir “true” faces at all? Hmmm…

  4. Aposiopesis says:

    It’s an interesting point, but personally, I don’t agree with it. Au is conflating the human body and the human face with someone’s personal identity, which comes across as shallow. The face is no indication of who someone really is; all that seeing a face could do is to remind yourself that, yes, the person beneath the costume is a human being after all. It should go without saying.

    It would take a special sort of shallowness to meet and make friends with some Halloween partier in full-body costume — only to scorn him when you meet, costumeless, for coffee. You engage with people for who they are, for what they think, say, perform, and create, regardless of what masks they wear, and it’s socially inept to either love or loathe someone based on their mask OR based on their body beneath. (Note that, if you don’t actually share any element of who you are, you probably won’t end up making friends in the first place – but you’ve got every right to do that. For some people, the mask always stays up, and I see no cause to pull it down for someone else’s comfort.)

    In virtual worlds, it’s difficult to determine who’s metaphorically wearing a small domino mask over their street clothes while being themselves, and who’s got a full-body costume and a stage performance. But, even in the real world, it takes time and effort to get to know a person – and people are always in the process of figuring out who they are, themselves. In brief, there can be no shortcut to authenticity – especially not by pressuring people to share more, or less, than they’d like.

    ….This was already a long rebuttal, but I can’t help but add this, as well: Compare these attitudes with peoples’ feelings towards celebrities: we’ve got no problem with fetishizing actors in this society, despite only really knowing them through how well they play their characters and through tawdry bits of tabloid gossip. Most people understand that they don’t really know them – it’s the illogical, unhinged stalker type who’d think that they have a strong personal bond with them, despite only ever being on the receiving end of a performance (whether it’s one orchestrated by a film director or a PR firm.) Similarly, only the unhinged would perceive a close relationship with someone – or reject someone – based on their avatar alone, despite what it may clue you into about their personality. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen – just that it’s a lapse of reason when it does.

    (And, to LBalsam – there are indeed games made within virtual worlds! My home community in Second Life, The Wastelands, has a combat and resource-gathering game, as well as other user-made games that use that system.)

  5. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful responses, folks. I’d reiterate Apo’s point; although I’ve scarcely been a regular there for some time, I’m a Wastelander myself, and the local gameplay really cements the community, emphasising both the in-world and meatspace characters behind the avatars. More interestingly still, the game (and as a result the community) is completely independent of the Second Life dev team; while Linden Lab are far from being immune from criticism on a number of points, the greatest thing they ever did was create a space in which others could create with relative freedom.