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

Still an ambiguous and distant concept, the metaverse is often defined as an identical universe composed of virtual worlds. Many companies, such as Meta or Microsoft, have invested in their construction. Their users – who are able to have fun, work and interact 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 must do to enter a virtual world.

An avatar can have a look that is loyal to the user or completely different. In the metaverse, people are not only easily led to present themselves in a different form, but also to adopt a different behavior.

Avatar, a way to play on your identity

To understand these representations, but also imagine the future characteristics of this universe in the digital world, the French company Webedia, which specializes in online media, conducted a study on people aged 18 to 34. He understands the subject thanks to the video game as a virtual alternative world. From his observation it can be seen that the avatar corresponds to a “Divide oneself”, where we can see especially the desires of the player. It is a field of expression and self -affirmation.

According to Michael Stora, a psychologist and psychoanalyst who founded the Observatory of Digital Worlds on the Humanities, individuals can use this digital representation to include another person they are not familiar with: “Basically, the incarnation of the avatar is often, in fact, a form of self-expression that is not always thought of. We all have within us, sometimes, a mask that we wear in society, but the masks that we often present in virtual spaces come to prove something in itself that is, sometimes, not always accepted.For example, if you are a person who is restrained and shy in life, your avatar can be a complete extrovert. . »

He believes this virtual identity is likely a form of betrayal of the social self, but also of cross-dressing and the ability to be able to act what one would normally not dare.

“The question of morality 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, it can be dangerous, especially in the context of addiction. For the psychologist, addiction is a kind of avoidance of the real I to, above all, the virtual I alone. It is therefore possible that the digital self will dominate 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 observed by influencers on social networks such as Instagram: “They are ultimately avatars with a hypertrophied virtual Me with an economic model behind it, sometimes to the detriment of the real Me. This kind of false self can lead to a pathology similar to a kind of burnout. By becoming only an ideal and virtual I, our real I no longer has the right to exist, but it is clear that we cannot escape forever what we really are. »

Another danger with avatars: in virtual worlds, they are the only way – other than the sound of the voice – to identify 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 would not say, sometimes for the worse. A person can make racist or hateful words because they can hide behind their avatar, but also because they understand the other in a virtual way. “The question of ethics and empathy is at the heart of virtual worlds: even before we see what happens in metaverses, we can see how destructive and severely aggressive virtual relationships can be. It is obvious to reflect on these. the world is to find the sources of design, in the technological stage that make it possible to rethink the other avatar as someone with the capacity to be and who is not something that is something. “by Michael Stora.

During this metaverse conference, the psychologist proposed a solution “pretty crazy” in the fight against racism and sexism: a form of symbolic punishment that involves forcing a user to include the avatar of the person he or she has harmed for a period of time so that he or she realizes the violence of his or her act. In the case of racism, this means forcing a white avatar to consist of a black avatar for a month or two.

The question of time is important to evoke empathy: “Generally, there is an idea that over time things, in emotional processes, exist. Just because you go there for an hour doesn’t mean you feel emotions that are unique to your appearance. in an avatar. “stated the psychoanalyst.

While virtual reality is seen as a way to regain empathy, these experiences should not last long. For Michael Stora, it takes a month or two to feel or imagine what racism can be like, for example.

The need for rules in the face of excessive avatars

If the metaverse is established, other social problems are already in its early stages. Since February, Meta has been offering a feature to protect users from harassment on its virtual reality platforms. named Personal Boundary, this is a personal boundary that prevents avatars from approaching each other. This feature is introduced in a context where two women claim to have been sexually harassed by avatars in virtual Meta spaces.

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

According to Michael Stora, this is a real social issue: “The Internet is built on a fairly exciting dictate that is freedom of expression, a space where it is possible to say everything, show everything and, ultimately, be able to dismantle a form of social hypocrisy and perhaps the socially oppressive. We quickly realized the excesses because, in the end, it was through specific legal frameworks that, for example, racist words were punished. »

In addition to the need for a legal arsenal close to the real world of virtual spaces, he believes the challenge in the future will be modest: “We can fully imagine that in metaverses there is a moderation that is up to par, something that should already be present on major social networks. That means, simply put, a force like the order force or like the Police Secours, people who will enforce the law and, why not, impose punishment such as expulsion. »

Beyond the avatars, the psychologist – who started by working on video games at the Observatory and has an interest in social networks – fears that Meta seeks to copy its economic and philosophical model of the metaverse, which is the show, success or even. beauty at all costs. He is also worried that thinking about this universe, right now, especially how to make a lot of money because these are the “businessman” who invested the most in it. In addition to companies looking to improve the metaverse, these virtual worlds are particularly attractive to brands, most of whom want to offer their products to users. The question of rules is thus unanswered when the need begins to be felt.

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