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Scientists study how the brain thinks about virtual avatars

This is fascinating stuff to think about over the weekend -- New Scientist has an article (sent to us by quite a few readers -- thanks!) about how we perceive our virtual selves in video games like World of Warcraft. A group of scientists at Dartmouth University hooked a few WoW players up to an MRI recently, and they found that when asked to describe themselves and their virtual avatars, the same areas of the brain activated -- areas normally suited to "self-reflection and judgement." In other words, you think about your avatar the same way you think about yourself. They found nearly no difference in the way the brain activated when subjects considered themselves and their avatars.

But when you make the split between virtual and real worlds (including your friends in both), the brain's center for imagination tends to light up whenever you consider the virtual world. You've got the normal parts of your brain working when thinking about yourself or others, but when you add in the virtual component, the imagination center lights up as well.

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Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Fan stuff, Virtual selves, Odds and ends

Real reactions to virtual environments

The always-interesting Terra Nova has a piece up about Nick Yee's the Proteus Effect, which is based around how we relate to (and interact with) stimuli in virtual worlds, specifically our and others' avatars.

Basically, almost all of the research so far shows that we react to virtual stimuli exactly the same way as if it were real stimuli-- we don't want our characters standing too close to other characters, because it's a social convention in the real world that we all have our own individual space. But we still react positively to attractive avatars, whether we know it or not. No matter how much we're supposed to be roleplaying, or how much we realize consciously that the virtual world is different from the real world, we still react in a real way to virtual stimuli. It's heady stuff, but here's Terra Nova's soundbite, by Dmitri Williams: "You can take the person out of the real, but not the real out of the person."

And Williams closes with an extremely interesting proposition, considering how the interaction works: what if, by making many parts of Outland dark and gloomy, Blizzard has caused us to react realistically and feel depressed? TN's informal survey says that players' favorite zone is Nagrand-- is that because it's sunny and green there? And if so, what does that say about our reaction to the expected upcoming expansion-- should Blizzard reconsider the dark, cold stretches of Northrend for a more tropical locale?

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Virtual selves, Blizzard

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