Avatar, the “splitting of the self” in the metaverse?

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 can have fun, work and socialize there – will be represented by avatars, their virtual identity, more or less close to their own identity. Creating this digital representation is also one of the first tasks that people entering a virtual world have to perform.

An avatar can look faithful to the user or be completely different. In the metaverse, people are not only likely to present themselves in another form, but also to adopt another 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 study among people between the ages of 18 and 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 a “Self splitting”, in which we find in particular the wishes of the player. 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: “Basically, the avatar incarnation is often, in fact, a form of staging a self that is not always assumed. We all have in us, at times, a mask that we wear socially, but the mask that we often present in virtual spaces comes to bear witness to something in itself that, at times, is not always accepted. For example, if you are an inhibited and shy person in life, your avatar may be completely outgoing. “

He believes that this virtual identity may be a form of betrayal of the social self, but also of disguise and the ability to be able to act out what a person usually doesn’t dare to be.

“The question of ethics and empathy are at the heart of virtual worlds. “

Michele 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 true ego in order to be, above all, only the virtual ego. 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 encountered with social influencers like Instagram: “Ultimately they are avatars who have a hypertrophied virtual ego with an economic model behind them, sometimes at the expense of the real ego. This type of false self can lead to a condition that resembles a form of burnout. By dint of being only an idealized and virtual ego, our true ego no longer has the right to exist, but obviously we cannot eternally avoid what we are in reality. “

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 don’t dare to be, it can also be used to say what we don’t dare to say, sometimes for the worse. A person could make racist or hateful comments because he can hide behind his avatar, but also because he perceives the other only in a virtual way. “The question of ethics and empathy are at the heart of virtual worlds: even before what we will see happening to metaverses, we can see how damaging and terribly aggressive the virtual relationship can be. It is obvious that the reflection on these worlds is to find the springs of design, of technological staging that allow us to rethink the other avatar as someone who also has the ability to be and who is not, it is not simply something that can manipulate or destroy. “says Michael Stora.

During this metaverse lecture, the psychologist proposed a solution “a little crazy” to combat racism and sexism: a form of symbolic punishment consisting in forcing a user to embody the avatar of the person who has harmed for a certain period of time so that he becomes aware of the violence of his own act. In the case of racism, it would mean forcing a white avatar to embody a black avatar for a month or two.

The question of time is in fact important to arouse empathy: “There is generally the idea that it is in time that things, in emotional processes, exist. Just because you go there for an hour doesn’t mean you will truly experience the unique emotions of your avatar incarnation. “declares the psychoanalyst.

While virtual reality is seen as a way to find empathy, these experiences shouldn’t be short-lived. For Michael Stora, it would take a month or two to try or imagine what it would be like to experience racism, for example.

The need for rules in the face of the excesses of 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 its virtual reality platforms. Named Personal border, this is a personal limitation 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 spaces.

While this type of behavior is punished in the real world, it is still not the case in the metaverse. The rules really have to be invented for these digital worlds. The French are also in favor: according to an Ifop survey, 47% would be in favor of the establishment of the same rules in virtual worlds as in the real world by the States.

According to Michael Stora, this is a real social problem: “The Internet is built on a rather exciting diktat which was that of freedom of expression, a space where it is possible to say everything, show everything and, finally, be able to break with a form of social and perhaps social repressive hypocrisy. We realized very quickly. of excesses since, ultimately, it is through specific legal frameworks that, for example, racist statements are punished. “

In addition to the need for a near-real-world legal arsenal in virtual spaces, he believes the challenge of the future will be moderation: “We can very well imagine that in the metaverses there is a moderation that is really up to it, something that should already exist in the major social networks. That is, quite simply, a force like the police or the Police Secours, people to enforce the law and, why not, to impose sanctions such as exile. “

Beyond the avatars, the psychologist – having started working on video games with the Observatory and taking an interest in social networks – fears that Meta will try to reproduce on the metaverse its economic and philosophical model, that of performance, success or even beauty. at all costs. He also finds it disturbing that thinking about this universe is, for the moment, mainly about how to make a lot of money since these are the “business men” who has invested the most. In addition to companies looking to develop the metaverse, these virtual worlds are particularly attractive to brands, many of whom want to offer their products to users. The question of rules is therefore not addressed when the need begins to be felt.

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