Understanding Interpersonal Drama in Virtual Worlds

Drama Free Zone Sign Within a Virtual World

In my last blog post on the emotional reality of virtual relationships I speculated that one of the sources for the drama that is known to occur in virtual worlds might be the absence of non-verbal communication. The findings from a recent study reported in Science Daily offer support for this hypothesis.

Here are some excepts from the article, Talk to the virtual hands: Body language of both speaker and listener affects success in virtual reality communication game:

“New research, published Oct. 12 in the online journal PLoS ONE, finds that the lack of gestural information from both speaker and listener limits successful communication in virtual environments.

Participants in the study played a communication game, in which one partner had to describe a word’s meaning to his partner so that the partner could guess the word.

Importantly, the partners could only interact through animated avatars; in some cases the avatars were controlled by virtual reality suits worn by the participants, while in other cases the avatars remained static throughout the game or acted out pre-recorded gestures.

The researchers found that the best performance was obtained when both avatars were able to move according to the motions of their owner. Specifically, they found that, in addition to the body language of the speaker being important, the body language of the listener impacted success at the task, providing evidence of the need for nonverbal feedback from listening partners in successful communication.” [read more of the report]

As I noted in my prior post, when we are faced with ambiguous communication, our pre-existing beliefs or schemas are especially likely to influence our perceptions. Non-verbal cues are a source of powerful information in face-to-face communication. While the technology is now available to show our our actual body movements and facial expressions in our avatars’ expressions and movements, this technology is not yet available in video games and virtual worlds. Of course, this is the reason that emoticons evolved. In the same way,  adding non-verbal cues through text is a practice that some people use in immersive settings, e.g., “Nancy Smyth nods respectfully.”

The study authors note that non-verbal behavior will be especially important to virtual world contexts for medical training among other types of applications. I would add social work and counseling to this list. Until then, it behooves those of us practicing in such environments to make an extra effort to provide non-verbal information some other way, such as through emoticons or text, or through scripted gestures that communicate our intent. And of course, going the extra mile with adding non-nonverbal communication via these methods become especially important when a relationship is new or during an emotionally-charged conversation.

Are there other ways that I haven’t mentioned that you can think of to add interpersonal information to virtual interactions?