Kel Smith, in Digital Outcasts, 2013
This chapter discusses the use of virtual worlds for people with disabilities, exploring the ways that immersive environments are used for education, fellowship, companionship, and therapy. It investigates the interaction models of virtual reality, examining how the body and mind respond to controlling an avatar, and includes a case study where virtual reality is used as a form of pain distraction. The chapter concludes with an emphasis on how people with disabilities and illness find communities of practice within their virtual circles of peers.
Virtual Reality and the Self
Vivian Sobchack, media theorist and film critic, once wrote that “even the most ordinary images find their value, their substance, their impetus, in the agency and investments of our flesh.” She was speaking about the concept of decorporealization—that point in which a media object, such as a photograph, depicts a persona that is at once representative and interchangeable with our identity of the self.
This is a complicated way of saying that users of virtual worlds who associate more closely with their avatars tend to have a more rewarding experience. Something takes over in the mind, which begins to show activity typical of what the avatar is doing on the screen. Digital outcasts who participate in this space identify very personally with their in-world personas and take their virtual lives very seriously. We might consider this primarily an augmentationist approach, but we find this behavior spanning all users of virtual worlds.
Digital outcasts associate very personally with their virtual identities.
Researchers at Stanford University have found that the more closely an avatar resembles the actual person, the more likely it is to psychologically inhabit the virtual body and assume its characteristics. “The remarkable thing is how little a virtual human has to do to produce fairly large effects on behavior,” said Jeremy Bailenson, director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford. His team discovered that slightly tweaking visual characteristics of the avatar—adjusting the avatar’s appearance in weight or making the avatar “more” or “less” attractive—created social effects that seeped into real-life interactions. “What we learn in one body is shared with other bodies we inhabit, whether virtual or physical,” concluded the research team.
Virtual worlds have found a strong and enthusiastic audience among people who live with autism spectrum disorders. Predominant among this user group are those who experience mild to severe anxiety when interacting with other people—a textbook example of an immersionist. They may also have limited attention spans and difficulty controlling their emotions. The virtual world is thus used as a way to work on social skills and common etiquette practices in a relatively safe environment, where they feel they will be judged more fairly than in real life.
People who are on the spectrum are a fiercely protective group, and many of them find a sense of fellowship and community within their virtual networks. The folks they connect with every day become part of their extended digital family. There are some who believe that the relationships they form in virtual worlds are more meaningful than those in real life—they’ve overcomed their awkwardness and learned to translate their anxiety productively.
Researchers in Dallas are conducting brain-imaging and neurocognitive tests on people with autism before and after virtual therapy sessions. Subjects tend to show improvements in several areas, including social appropriateness and ability to read a person’s body language. One 35-year-old graduate student revealed that he felt more confident making small talk since practicing in virtual reality. “I’m usually not good with someone face to face,” he said. “I tend to feel awkward and put my foot in my mouth.”
The Center for BrainHealth in Dallas has picked up on this study and taken a truly futuristic approach in helping children with autism learn how to navigate social situations, from ordering something in a coffee shop to practicing for a job interview. An avatar on the screen shows facial expressions and gestures, helping the subject better understand emotional triggers. So far, the therapy is proving to be successful. “Four or five sessions in here is worth about 2 or 3 years of real world training,” says Clark Thurston, a 16 year old with Asperger’s syndrome. Thurston’s mother was astounded at how well the virtual reality therapy worked for her autistic son. “He got bullied a lot, so he carried around a lot of pain,” she said tearfully. “I never even dared to hope that [the treatment] would be this good.”
The face is the gateway to improving social interaction among people with autism spectrum disorders.
Why is this approach so successful for some people? Researcher Dan Krawczyk thinks it has to do with the bond between avatar and subject:
When you’re driving an avatar, you’re in virtual space, riding one of these characters as yourself. [But] it’s not just recognizing a face. It’s recognizing emotion. A lot of brain areas have to talk to each other and coordinate, and some of these connections are not as strong as they should be. The face is the gateway to social interaction.
What Dr. Krawczyk describes is a form of anthropomorphic realism, which is the degree to which an object or depiction is personified to represent a human form.
Operating an avatar onscreen triggers a neurological response that replicates the authenticity of a physical experience.
Studies further indicate that a kinetic response improves anthropomorphic realism, which might reveal insights into how people with limited mobility connect with their virtual selves. “A fundamental difference is you have an avatar,” says Mark Dubin. He is a professor of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado and designs haptic interfaces for virtual reality. He supports the notion that avatars can act as an extension for the mind and body by replicating the feel of authenticity to a physical experience, which triggers a neurological response:
You have a representative that is you and responds to you. You move, it moves. You feel like you’re there, literally. Your brain will show activity typical of what the avatar is actually doing.