As writers we know that third person perspective is a form of storytelling in which the narrator relates all the action in the form of another person, making use of the pronouns “he” and “she” (as in, “She boarded the ship bound for Venice.”). This produces a very different effect from telling the story using a first person voice (“I will tell you the story of my trip to Venice.”). Writers often feel more comfortable storytelling from the first person point of view, but that third person perspective actually gives the writer more headroom, more freedom to spin the yarn in unusual ways.
I’ve been thinking more about the third-person perspective, as it relates to virtual worlds. The photo you see above is the typical viewer perspective in virtual worlds, like Open Sim, Second Life, Jibe, Kitely, Wonderland, etc. It’s as if you are floating just behind your avatar, looking over his or her shoulder. Seeing what your avatar sees in front of them, but including your avatar in the frame of reference, as a constant reminder of their presence. You are not them, as you are in a “first person” perspective virtual experience (like first-person shooter games – Call of Duty, Halo, etc). This third person perspective makes it clear that there is another – an avatar, an alternate you.
A recent blog post by Christopher Hutchison (Khosian Fisher in SL) got me thinking more about this. In his post, Hutchison (who is a computer science lecturer in the UK) talks about the notion of imaginary friends. That intriguing and mysterious element of childhood, when we manufacture imaginary friends through which we play out the dramas of our young minds. Psychologists have long pointed to this behavior as normative and healthy – a way for children to work out their fears, anxieties, as well as their joys. He references the work of Marjorie Taylor, professor at University of Oregon and author of the book, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Taylor’s book explains that these imaginary friends allow children to explore relationships, anticipate the consequences of behavior, and role-play various emotional encounters in life. Children who have imaginary friends (and it’s more common than not) tend to be less shy and more able to see things from anothers’ perspective.
So it’s not a huge leap (and Chris makes it beautifully) to think of these avatars we create in virtual worlds as adult versions of these “imaginary friends”. When we interact with others in a virtual setting, we are offered the anonymity and comfort of working out conversations, navigating relationships, and grappling with new ideas. As if we are rehearsing all of that for real life. The space may well be virtual but the rehearsal is very real, and the lessons learned from it apply directly.
When I first began exploring virtual worlds about three years ago, I remember being immediately taken with the way that colleagues, more experienced than me, referred to their avatar. It was always in the third person and always in a way that playfully implied how very real that person was to them. For example, a colleague who’s avatar’s name is “Flora” would say to me, over the phone, “Flora will meet you there at 3:00.” She would never say, “I’ll meet you in the virtual world at 3:00″. There is also the endearing cultural phenomenon of using local chat to write (in italic) an action or a thought that the real person attributes to their avatar. For example:
Spiral: Hi, Flora! Good to see you.
Flora: Hey there. How are you?
Spiral: Fine, thanks. How long have you been here?
Flora: looks knowingly at her watch
Flora: Since 3:00, but I had lots to catch up on, so that’s ok.
The italic phrases are always playful. A sort of thought-bubble – a wink and a nudge. A comment that, in this case, Flora is making, but letting you in on the secret. And this habit has always carried the nuance, for me, of the avatar’s puppeteer coming through and showing themselves, reminding us of the third person perspective. I love this cultural artifact of virtual worlds.
It’s worthwhile to remember the origins of the word “avatar”. It derives from the Sanskrit word, “avatara”, meaning “descent”, as in a deity descending from heaven to Earth. In English the word has come to mean an incarnation, a representation, a manifestation. The term is often associated with Vishnu and the varying list of avatars in Hindu scripture. It seems to be less about incarnation of a deity (in the Christian sense) and more about manifestations of the divine in human life and the natural world. It’s interesting to ponder the many ways that these interactions our avatars have (with us, as their puppeteers) manifest themselves in our regular lives…how are they influencing us?
My musings about the power of the third person perspective came to a head this week with this Science Daily article, The Third Person Perspective is Helpful in Meeting Goals. The article’s authors, psychologists at Cornell University, investigated the impact of referring to and reflecting on events in your past in the third person versus the first person. In the article they conclude that reflecting in the third person helps give valuable perspective and can actually help accentuate changes made, over similar reflections made in the first person. To quote one of the investigators, Thomas Gilovich, directly:
“We have found that perspective can influence your interpretation of past events. In a situation in which change is likely, we find that observing yourself as a third person — looking at yourself from an outside observer’s perspective — can help accentuate the changes you’ve made more than using a first-person perspective.”
I can draw a clear line of sight between this observation and the experience we’ve had working with various learners in the virtual world. Take, for instance, working with diabetes patients in the Women in Control project (Co-PIs John Wiehca and Milagros Rosal). Women in Control (WIC) is an NIH-funded study to measure health behavior changes between two groups – those who participate in a health behaviors intervention in face-to-face sessions conducted in the real world, and those who engage in the same intervention in the virtual world. I’ve blogged about this work in earlier posts here and here.
As we’ve worked with the patients in this study, I’ve taken particular note of the way they refer to their avatars. The subjects get quite chummy with their virtual representations, right from the beginning, and they consistently refer to their avatars in the third person. Great concern is expressed over their avatar’s appearance (clothes, shoes, hair, jewelry as well as their size and shape). They consistently ask where the avatar “goes” after they quit the virtual world and express a desire to put her “in a safe place”. When they first navigate their avatar around the virtual space they’ll say things like, “Oh, no!! She went in the water and now she’s all wet!” or “I can’t get her to do what I want her to do.” or “I want to make her fly!”. They consistently refer to this virtual being they’ve just met in the third person – and that referencing continues throughout the eight-week intervention. The WIC team is still hard at work on this project, but stay tuned for the results.
Another example is a project with family practice physicians, learning patient communication techniques in a virtual setting. In this case, the doctors, present as avatars, role play interactions with standardized patients (also avatars). The third person perspective here, I think, gives them a certain anonymity; a distance, while still being very present, that allows them to take greater risks. In a profession that demands consistently upheld expertise, it must indeed feel quite risky to be a beginner and make mistakes in front of your peers. I suspect that the third person perspective of the avatar offers them a safe remove to be a novice and allow for a natural, stumbling learning curve.
In both of these projects, I can see the inherent value in the third person perspective awarded by the virtual world. A unique affordance, over and above the more obvious advantages of expense, travel, and ease of access. For me, it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “it depends on your perspective.”