Avatars, “splitting of the Self” in the metaverse?

Still a vague and distant concept, the metaverse is often defined as a parallel universe consisting 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 an appearance that is true to the user or be completely different. In the metaverse, humans are not only susceptible 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. She was able to understand the subject thanks to the video game as a virtual alternate 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: “Fundamentally, the incarnation of the avatar is often in reality a form of staging of a self, which is not always assumed. We all sometimes have a mask in us 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 can be completely extroverted. »

He believes that this virtual identity will probably 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 question of ethics and empathy is at the heart of virtual worlds. »

Michael Stora

Psychologist

This is one of the advantages of the avatar: it allows you to play with your identity. However, this can be dangerous, especially in the context of addiction. For the psychologist, addiction is a form of avoidance of the real Me in order above all to be only the virtual Me. It is therefore possible that the digital self prevails over the real self in such a way that an individual no longer dares to be, act and be heard in the real world.

A problem 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 similar to a form of burnout. Because of being only an idealized and virtual Me, our real Me no longer has the right to exist, but of course we cannot forever avoid what we are in reality. »

Another danger with avatars: In virtual worlds, they are the only way – apart from 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. A person can 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 will see happen with the metaverse, we can see how harmful 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 make it possible to rethink the other avatar as one who also has a capacity to be, and who does not, is not simply a thing that can be manipulated or destroyed”says Michael Stora.

During this conference on the metaverse, the psychologist suggested a solution “a little crazy” to fight racism and sexism: a form of symbolic punishment that consists in forcing a user to embody the avatar of the person they have harmed for a certain period of time, so that they become aware of the violence of their action. In the case of racism, that would mean forcing a white avatar to embody a black avatar for a month or two.

The issue of time is indeed important for evoking empathy: “In general, there is an idea that it is over time that things, in emotional processes, exist. Just because you go there for an hour doesn’t mean you’ll truly feel the emotions 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 feel or imagine what it would be like to experience racism, for example.

The need for rules in the face of avatar excesses

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 its virtual reality platforms. Named Personal limit, this is a personal limit 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.

While this kind of behavior is punished in the real world, it is not yet the case in the metaverse. Rules really have to be invented for these digital worlds. The French are also in favor of it: according to an Ifop poll, 47% are in favor of states establishing the same rules in virtual worlds as in the real world.

According to Michael Stora, this is a real social issue: “The Internet is built on a rather exciting dictate, which was that of freedom of speech, a space where it is possible to say anything, show anything and finally be able to break with a kind of social and perhaps societal hypocrisy oppressive. We realized very quickly the excesses, as it is ultimately through specific legal frameworks that, for example, racist expressions are punished. »

In addition to the need for a legal arsenal close to the real world in virtual spaces, he believes that the challenge of the future will be moderation: “We can completely imagine that in the metaverse there is a moderation that is really on a level, something that should already exist in the large social networks. That is, simply, a force like law enforcement or like Police Secours, people to enforce the law and why not impose punishments such as banishment. »

In addition to the avatars, the psychologist – who started working on video games with the Observatory and has taken an interest in social networks – fears that Meta seeks to reproduce its economic and philosophical model on the metaverse, namely the achievement, 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, since these are “businessmen” who invested the most in it. In addition to companies seeking to develop the metaverse, these virtual worlds especially attract brands, many of which want to offer their products to users. The question of the rules is thus not dealt with when the need begins to be felt.

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