Still a vague and distant concept, the metaverse is often defined as a parallel universe made up of virtual worlds. Many companies, such as Meta or Microsoft, invest in their construction. Their users – who will be able to have fun, work and socialize there – will be represented by avatars, their virtual identity, more or less close to their own identity. The creation of this digital representation is also one of the first tasks that people entering a virtual world must perform.
An avatar can have a look that is true to the user or be completely different. In the metaverse, humans are not only receptive to presenting themselves in a different form, but also to assuming a different behavior.
The avatar, a way to play with your identity
To understand these representations, but also to imagine future attitudes in this universe of digital worlds, the French company Webedia, which specializes in online media, conducted a survey among people aged 18 to 34 years. She was able to understand the subject thanks to the video game as a virtual alternative world. From his observation it appears that the avatar corresponds to one “Self-division”, in which we especially find the player’s wishes. It is a field of expression and self-affirmation.
According to Michael Stora, a psychologist and psychoanalyst who co-founded the Observatory of Digital Worlds in the Humanities, individuals can use this digital representation to embody another person they are not used to being: Basically, the incarnation of the avatar is often in fact a form of staging of a self that is not always assumed. We all have in us sometimes a mask that we wear socially, but the mask that we often present in virtual spaces comes to testify to something in itself that is sometimes not always accepted. For example, if you are someone who is inhibited and shy in life, your avatar may be completely outgoing. »
He believes that this virtual identity is likely to be a form of betrayal of the social self, but also of cross-dressing and the ability to be able to act what a person normally does not dare to be.
“The issue of ethics and empathy is at the heart of virtual worlds.”
This is one of the benefits of the avatar: it allows you to play with your identity. However, this can be dangerous, especially in connection with addiction. For the psychologist, addiction is a form of avoiding the real Me and, above all, only being the virtual Me. It is therefore possible that the digital self disposes of the real self in such a way that an individual no longer dares to be, act and be heard in the real world.
An issue already observed with influencers on social networks like Instagram: “They are ultimately avatars who have a hypertrophied virtual Me with an economic model behind them, sometimes to the detriment of the real Me. This kind of false self can lead to a pathology that resembles a kind of burnout. Due to of being only an idealized and virtual Me, our real Me no longer has the right to exist, but of course we can not forever avoid what we really are. “
Another danger with avatars: in virtual worlds, they are the only way – besides the sound of the voice – to perceive the user. In other words, if this digital representation allows us to be what we dare not be, it can also be used to say what we dare not say, sometimes for the worse. One person may make racist or hateful remarks because they can hide behind their avatar, but also because they only perceive the other in a virtual way. “The question of ethics and empathy is at the heart of virtual worlds: Even before what we want to see happen with the metavers, we can see how damaging and terribly aggressive the virtual relationship can be. It is obvious that the reflection on these worlds is to be found. the sources of design, of technological staging that would allow the other avatar to be rethought as one who also has an ability to be, and who does not, is not just something that can be manipulated or destroyed “says Michael Stora.
During this conference on the meta-verse, the psychologist suggested a solution “a little crazy” to combat racism and sexism: a form of symbolic punishment that consists in forcing a user to embody the avatar of the person he has harmed for a certain period of time so that he becomes aware of the violence in his action. In the case of racism, that would mean forcing a white avatar to embody a black avatar for one or two months.
The question of time is indeed important for arousing empathy: “In general, there is the idea that it is over time that things, in emotional processes, exist. Just because you go there for an hour, does not mean you really want to feel the emotions that are unique to your embodiment of an avatar. “declares the psychoanalyst.
Although virtual reality is seen as a way to regain empathy, these experiences should not be short-lived. For Michael Stora, it would take a month or two to be able to feel or imagine what it would be like to experience racism, for example.
The need for rules in light of the excesses of the avatars
If the metaverse is under construction, other social problems are already present in its first iterations. Since February, Meta has offered a feature to protect users from harassment on their virtual reality platforms. Named Personal limit, this is a personal border that prevents avatars from getting too close to each other. This feature was introduced in a context where two women claimed to have been sexually harassed by avatars in Meta’s virtual space.
Although this kind of behavior is punished in the real world, it is not yet the case in the metaverse. Rules really need to be invented for these digital worlds. The French also support it: according to an Ifop survey, they are 47% in favor of establishing the same rules in the virtual worlds as in the real world of the states.
According to Michael Stora, this is a real social issue: “The Internet is built on a rather intriguing dictation, which was freedom of speech, a space where it is possible to say everything, show everything and finally be able to break with a form of social hypocrisy and perhaps social oppression. We very quickly realized the transgressions. , as it is ultimately through specific legal frameworks that racist utterances, for example, are punished. “
In addition to the need for a legal arsenal close to the real world in virtual space, he believes the challenge of the future will be moderation: “We can completely imagine that in the metaverse there is a moderation team that is really on a level, something that should already exist in the big social networks. That is, quite simply, a force like law enforcement or like Police Secours, people to enforce the law and why not impose penalties such as deportations. »
In addition to the avatars, the psychologist – who has started working on video games with the Observatory and is interested in social networks – fears that Meta seeks to reproduce its economic and philosophical model on the metaverse, namely performance, success or even beauty at any cost. He also finds it disturbing that the idea of this universe at the moment is mainly about how to make a lot of money as these are “businessmen” who invested the most in it. In addition to companies looking to develop the meta-verse, these virtual worlds especially attract brands, many of which want to offer their products to users. The question of the rules is thus not addressed when the need begins to be felt.