Long ago, avatars were incarnations of a Hindu deity in human or animal form. Usually embodying Vishnu, the protector of the world and restorer of moral order (dharma) as a fish, tortoise, half-man-half-lion or other form, avatars materialized in the world to fight evil. Nowadays an avatar is more likely to be an online virtual character whose persona—robotic, mechanistic, lacking in emotion—is typically adopted by players of video games.
What happens when players disconnect from this virtual world? Researchers have found that they continue to exhibit quasirobotic conduct: specifically, desensitization to physical and emotional pain, both in themselves and in others. Psychologists Ulrich Weger of the University of Witten/Herdecke in Germany and Stephen Loughnan of the University of Melbourne in Australia discovered this when they invited a group of 39 male college students—who reported an average of nine and a half hours of video gaming per week—to participate in a simple experiment.
To gauge participants’ tolerance for physical pain, Weger and Loughnan asked each to pull out as many paperclips as possible within 30 seconds from a bowl filled with ice-cold water. The participants extracted an average of 13 paperclips, and the more hours they played video games, the more paperclips they could redeem.
The researchers then conducted a second experiment on another group of 46 students, 33 of whom were women. For seven minutes, the participants played an immersive video game in which they experienced a three-dimensional, nonviolent virtual world as a robotic avatar. (Control students played a puzzle game.)
Next, they performed the paperclip test and an additional task: they looked at five images of people showing different levels of “pain and displeasure” and five others in which people expressed varying levels of pleasure. Subjects rated the expression of emotion on a point scale. Immersive gamers, Weger wrote to me via email, “tended to be closer toward the midpoint, i.e. the point of indifference between displeasure and pleasure.”
The results of the experiment, the psychologists conclude, suggest an increased “blurring” in the human-machine boundary: even as human qualities are added to animated toys and figures—and even robot therapists—players adopting the role of an automaton-like avatar tend to be less sensitive to human pain.
But I can’t help thinking of the disparity between the ancient role of the avatar and its modern interpretation. To fight evil, one must be able to empathize with people who suffer under its weight. And those who are indifferent to pain are less likely to exert themselves on behalf of those who go through it.