Get out of my cyberspace!

If you thought online virtual worlds would be an easy-going utopia where players cast aside their awkward real-world inhibitions, think again. Online games like Second Life allow people to adopt an alternative identity and interact with other players in a vast three-dimensional world. But far from producing their own social rules, Nick Yee and colleagues at Stanford University found behavioural patterns relating to personal space and eye contact were observed in Second Life just as they are in the real world.

Over seven weeks, the researchers recorded details of 835 unique two-person interactions in Second Life, including the distance between players’ digital characters and whether they were directly facing each other. The gender of the actual players was not taken into account – only that of their digital characters. Mirroring findings in the real world, they found two characters of the same gender tended to keep a greater distance between each other than two characters of the opposite gender. Moreover, the closer two characters were, the less likely they were to be directly facing each other – reflecting a real-world phenomenon, in which people tend to make less eye-contact the closer together they are. Two men close together in an indoor environment were the least likely to make eye contact.

The researchers said their findings suggested “social interactions in online virtual environments, such as Second Life, are governed by the same social norms as social interactions in the physical world”. They added this equivalence between worlds was great news for investigators seeking to use online games as a route to researching social psychology more generally. “These online gaming environments are both a goldmine of longitudinal social interaction data as well as experimental research platforms that have a far larger population and broader demographic than the typical undergraduate pool”, they said.

Yee, N., Bailenson, J.N. & Urbanek, M. (2006). The unbearable likeness of being digital: The persistence of nonverbal social norms in online virtual environments. Cyberspace and Behaviour, In Press.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.