Hiding behind your avatar?

One of the questions I raised after listening to Nik Peachey’s interview was ‘how does personal attachment to an avatar impact on participation?’

 An avatar can be described as “user embodiment in a collaborative virtual environment” (Gerhard, Moore and Hobbs 2004:5 in Peterson 2006:3). That is to say, an avatar allows the user to adopt a graphical representation in a virtual environment. It has been suggested by Schroeder (2002:3 in Peterson 2006:4) that avatars heighten the users’ sense of being in the virtual world (the users’ telepresence) and also the users’ sense of co-presence with other users or learners. Peterson (2006) argues that the importance of avatars in establishing a sense of being enhances social communication and, thus, telepresence and co-presence are important influences on online interaction. 

 Some research (e.g. Bradley and Lomicha, 2000:362, in Roed, 2003:3) has suggested that it is easier for learners to communicate in the target language when they are behind a computer screen as the screen acts as a “shield from being on stage”. Speaking may be considered the most anxiety-inducing skill in learning a foreign language. This is somewhat of a catch 22 situation as studies (including MacIntyre and Noels, 1996 in Roed, 2003:4) have shown that starting a conversation in a foreign language, asking questions in the foreign language and self-motivation to speak in a foreign language when afraid, whilst being considered as the most anxiety-provoking learning strategies are also those which learners rate as being the most effective. It is, therefore, of interest to discover whether providing learners with a screen and an avatar as shields may encourage greater participation and, in turn, greater self-efficiency beliefs amongst learners.

 Henderson et al (2009) have addressed this question with regards to the virtual world Second Life. They researched one lesson where students of Chinese, having covered the topic previously in class, visited a SL restaurant to identify and order appropriate food. They concluded that the lesson had a positive impact on the students’ self-efficacy beliefs but that this was in relation to the environment in which the avatar was acting, rather than the avatars themselves. The suggest that the students had a greater perceived sense of relevance and authenticity in the virtual world, due to its immersive nature, and that this impacted on the learners judgment of their capabilities to execute the task.

 Peterson, in his report on using the virtual world Active Worlds with intermediate ESL learners (2006), 71% of participants reported a sense of telepresence when using their avatar compared to 46% of participants when considering telepresence in chat-only communication. Of this 71%, 88% believed that their avatar also increased their sense of copresence and more than the majority of all participants in the study (58%) wanted to further study English using their avatar due to these affordances.

 After reading these studies, it appears that further research is needed to try to work out, and distinguish between, i) how the avatar impacts on participation and self-efficacy in synthetic worlds and ii) how the synthetic world as a whole impacts on participation and self-efficacy in such a world. Although difficult to do so, particularly from an ecological perspective, some light may be shed on this issue by using a control study e.g. in a bland VW environment, and comparing this to a study where avatars exploit many aspects of the immersive environment.