Time to reconsider the stereotype of doughy, fast food-guzzling online role players in dark basements. Strongly identifying with your avatar in virtual video game worlds like "Second Life" could actually help make you healthier in the real world, research from the University of Missouri shows.
Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz surveyed 249 "Second Life" users to study how avatars — their customized virtual characters in games — affect real-world existence. She found that the amount of self presence, or identifying with a virtual representation, predicted the amount of influence an avatar had on a person's life in the physical world. A strong sense of self-presence improved how they felt about themselves and promoted better health and well-being.
In the study, published in the journal "Computers in Human Behavior," Behm-Morawitz wrote, "The avatar links the virtual to the physical body, and, through this interplay of one’s online and offline identities, the virtual may become meaningful to the physical body and self."
For example, for people looking to lose weight, creating a fitter avatar helped them visualize being in better shape.
Curiously, the participants weren't specifically using " Second Life " as a fitness tool, as they might with, say, a Wii Fit game. "'Second Life' is a social virtual world, where play is open-ended and not specifically designed to be used as a motivational health tool," Behm-Morawitz told TechNewsDaily in an email. "However, the findings … suggest that a person who is motivated to participate in a virtual world for social reasons is more likely to experience effects of the avatar."
In other words, if you are into the game enough to care about how you come across online, that will motivate you to make a better impression offline, too.
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Behm-Morawitz says the results should not be limited to "Second Life" — other virtual worlds could show the same kinds of benefits. However, virtual worlds that offer the most control over avatar design and interaction will best foster self-presence and prompt healthy behavior change.
Avatars are useful for trying on a new appearance, Behm-Morawitz said, since they pose little risk to the creator.
Though it may seem like a throwback to the early 2000s, "Second Life" remains one of the most popular online games. In July 2012, Nielsen rated it among the top 10 PC games.
Other studies support the new research. In an Indiana University study published in September, more people adopted healthy habits when they went through weight-loss programs delivered in a 3D virtual world than those who pursued a program in a traditional health club.