It is known that there are parallels between how people behave in a virtual world, and how they behave in the real world. It’s been many years since I first heard of big retailers testing out floor plans and display units by setting them up in a virtual world, and analyzing peoples’ virtual world behavior to glean insights into what would be effective in the real world. I’ve heard of many other examples since.
There is even research being done about the behavioral relationship in the other direction – behaviors and attitudes fostered in virtual environments can be seen to play out once the person returns to the real world:
I’ve only recently begun to dabble in multi-user virtual worlds – unless you count the type of multi-user virtual worlds where you and the other players must destroy as many zombies as possible or be destroyed yourself – and that’s not really what I mean by “virtual world”.
Not long ago, I set up a Minecraft Realm for my kids, their friends, and myself to putter around in. Fun for them – fun and educational for me. And it was here that I really started to get an appreciation for the crossover between peoples’ behaviour in the real world, and their behaviour in a virtual world.
The first person I met in there was my daughter. The first thing she did was show me a rabbit. The second thing she did was teach me to fish. Then she taught me to fly, taught me to sleep – she played it all the way she might have played it if I’d arrived in the real world for the first time and had to be shown where the fridge was. It was pretty cool.
(In the real world, she digs clams out of the lake, smashes them open, puts them on the hook, casts a mile out, and brings in a fish. I didn’t teach her that. She learned it from her peers. She takes great pride in her fishing prowess, and it was one of the first things she showed off virtually.)
The next person to arrive in the Realm was my other daughter. Right away it was clear, her virtual world behavior was uniquely her own. As in the real world, her activities centered around taming and riding horses, and building the best snack bar with the best snacks in all the Realm. She quickly noticed that I had a unique appearance – so she wanted one too. Sat me down and forced me to show her how to use GIMP.
Soon enough, some of their friends came to play in the Realm. And I noticed how they, and I, were all behaving as we would in the real world. They were building, cooking, riding, collecting, building, destroying, and I was puttering around the edges building and exploring but keeping an eye on them all – just like I’ve done for years in the real world.
But then came the real epiphany. I woke up one morning (yes, you do sleep nights in Minecraft), and immediately, my kids started freaking me out. Perhaps they were behaving weirdly because their friends were there? Within seconds, I was so vexed by their behaviour, even though ti was behaviour in a virtual world, that I stormed upstairs to comment. And what did I find?
I found that they’d played “musical chairs”, swapped devices, and were now operating under the guise of being someone else. My daughters were logged in as their friends, and vice versa. So I returned to my terminal, and with this in mind, found no cognitive dissonance arising from the behaviour of my children. They were acting like I’d expect – they were just dressed up, and labeled, as someone else.
But I found it stunning, how immediately obvious it was that they were not who they appeared to be. Like when one of your friends gets their Facebook account hacked, and you can tell it’s not them – but there it was, unfolding in virtual space, in real time, clear as day how every action, every movement, is a tell-tale of the person remotely driving that avatar.