For almost every human with a smart phone, the idea of an online profile has become synonymous. From your Google account, through your social media accounts and right up to serious-gaming “Avatars”, we all understand implicitly that we need to represent ourselves to the outside world (online or offline) through our devices via a simple name and visual image. While it may seem an unimportant necessity to most of us, to those who have grown up with mobile devices or those who rely on online accounts to make a living, these outward projections of one’s identity have become incredibly important, not to mention financially valuable.
While we wait for the long anticipated Virtual Reality (VR) and Metaverse revolution to hit our actual real lives, those interested in the wellness (psychological and physical) of other humans have to pause and wonder; “What is this doing to us psychologically?”. With the recent mainstream acceptance of localised AI technology (not to be confused with General Artificial Intelligence, which is a long way off, but in the post), it will be hard to predict what our new reality will look like when the VR wearable devices catch up to the hype around the Metaverse. From a Generation X point of view (me), looking at Generation Z (my children), it would seem prudent to start to understand what happens to one’s identity when it is projected into a third party proxy or host. And importantly whether or not this phenomenon can be leveraged towards a positive end.
And it would seem imperative to do this before the zero-game scenario of General AI + realistic (haptic) wearables arrives.
Let's focus back on a more realistic current scenario. While researching Menstrual Health in young people for our new app Howami, we have thought a lot about how to engage young people and how to use their current behaviour modes in a way that reflects back positively. Being pragmatists, our approach is always about integrating what we see in the world and trying to utilise whatever impulses or needs drive this behaviour. Being parents puts us in a rather humorous state of radical acceptance; knowing that you can’t change kids overnight. We have to look through the generational gap and say to ourselves “ok, this is new and makes no sense, but I remember my parents felt the same about me.”
We have all heard the horror stories about the effect that social media can have on adolescent girl’s mental health and I won’t get into this now. There is a lot of evidence that a child projecting part of their personality online and critically comparing this projection of themselves with others, can lead to depression, anxiety and sometimes suicidal ideation. Most parent’s impulse is to immediately remove the source of the problem (be it social accounts or the device itself) and this is indeed valid.
However, our research has suggested that if we were to utilise this impulse to represent yourself digitally and use it as a mirror back onto the individual, there are many possible positive outcomes. We are not the only ones to think this (and indeed, we didn’t invent it) and there are numerous examples, particularly in Fitness tech, where the use of a self-representing Avatar can improve achievement of goals or performance levels. And in Healthcare, it is becoming clear that many advances can be made when a patient can interface digitally with a representation of themselves (either alone or socially). Further more, some commentators believe that one of the most common uses of VR/Metaverse will likely be in Healthcare situations.
In short, if you can see yourself, you identify more with that image and any further interactions become more impactful.
The Proteus Effect is a term coined by Self-Perception Theory, which describes the psychological phenomena where users in online environments may conform to the expectations and stereotypes of the identity of their avatars. Howami will leverage the Proteus Effect by allowing a space where, free from peer comparison, an individual can create their own self and are provided tools and information in which to improve themselves.
We have designed all of the functional focus within Howami to centre around a customisable Avatar. The avatar can be configured to look like the user or to look like how they would like to look. We guide the user into being connected with this representation of themselves in a meaningful way. Then, of course they are taken carefully through the app journey which focuses on their menstrual experience.
Being connected to the process through their Avatar is vital in two ways;
1. They feel a sense of embodiment. Their physical self comes into play and becomes a part of the process. Any learning becomes more “real”.
2. The act of creating yourself is an enjoyable process. In increases a sense of control or empowerment. It speaks of playing games and creativity.
The space between Menstruation and Mental health is a very important and woefully neglected place, which needs addressing head on. All of our efforts so far have been focused on finding a way to engage young menstruators in a language they understand and want to engage with. The use of a self-representing avatar seems to be a happy place where both of these goals could be achieved simultaneously.
The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior. Nick Yee & Jeremy Bailenson. Department of Communication, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305
VR/AR and wellbeing: The use of immersive technologies in promoting health outcomes. Department of Communication, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA, United States
User-Avatar Bond: Risk and Opportunities in Gaming and Beyond. Department of Media and Information, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, United States, 3 User-Experience Lab, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, Singapore .
The Impact of Gamification-Induced Users' Feelings on the Continued Use of mHealth Apps: A Structural Equation Model With the Self-Determination Theory Approach. Peking University, 38 Xueyuan Rd, Haidian District, Beijing, China
Self‐representation through avatars in digital environments. Daniel Zimmermann. Current Psychology (2023)
A systematic review on the influence of avatar appearance on health-related outcomes. Oliver Clark, Sarah Grogan, Jennifer Cole, & Niki Ray. Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health Psychology and Social Change, Manchester Metropolitan University.
Exploring the user-avatar relationship in videogames: A systematic review of the Proteus effect. NTU Psychology Department, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK