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Home arrow News arrow The Power of Virtual Identity: How Avatars Shape Our Health and Mind

The Power of Virtual Identity: How Avatars Shape Our Health and Mind

HealthReporter author Nadzeya Sankovich
Written by Nadzeya Sankovich
Dr. Donika Vata
Fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
Last update: October 12, 2023
6 min read 1091 Views 0 Comments
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What makes avatars better than traditional lectures and instructional videos? Discover how to learn about health in ways that are more fun than classroom push-ups.

Boy scrolling smartphone

It’s 2033, and you find yourself standing at the entrance to a virtual classroom. As you step inside, you’re greeted by students from all corners of the world, each represented by a unique digital persona. 

You notice a student with a lion’s head, another with gleaming wings, and your teacher who strangely resembles Brad Pitt. Welcome to the world of avatars, where imagination knows no bounds and online learning is engaging.

Avatars are customizable digital representations of their user. They serve as a bridge between reality and virtual worlds, allowing users to navigate virtual environments.

BoomeranGO! game
Health Reporter edit

By providing an interactive learning experience, avatars revolutionize the way we learn and open a world of possibilities for educators.

To better understand avatars and their impact on online learning, patient education, and cognitive performance, we reviewed recent studies on avatar-based technology. We also interviewed experts from the avatar-based mobile game BoomeranGO! and Estoty, a top game developer with 200M+ active players worldwide.

How Avatars Transform Traditional Learning

As most know, online learning involves sitting behind a computer screen and being a passive participant. Despite the efforts to make Zoom classes more engaging, students lose interest due to the lack of interaction and overall passiveness of the online learning experience.

Virtual environments are here to change the way we approach online learning. They are part of virtual reality (VR) – a computer-generated simulation of the real world with which we can interact through avatars – and can improve online learning outcomes.

Expert image border Povilas Danius
Povilas Danius
Team lead at Estoty

I believe the strategic implementation of avatars holds significant potential in the realm of education. Avatars can assume various roles depending on the project’s goals and vision. They can serve as heroes, guiding players toward specific directions and objectives.

Alternatively, avatars can act as clones, mirroring and celebrating players’ achievements and reinforcing positive behaviors. They can take on the persona of a trusted friend, offering honest advice and support.

Research suggests that avatar-based learning increases engagement with educational content (and each other) by enabling students to assume virtual identities.

For example, in 2020, students at Simon Fraser University had the opportunity to create their own avatars and participate in a virtual class for an entire semester. Even though they spent their days in front of a screen, the quality of the online class did not suffer.1

Virtual classroom
Learning as avatars transforms virtual classrooms – SFU News – Simon Fraser University

There are many benefits to virtual classrooms, including acoustic attenuation. It is the ability to mimic sound fading as one person moves further away from the speaker. 

Unlike in Zoom classes, students could have their private conversations within the virtual classroom without announcing their thoughts to everyone present. 

Moreover, one study found that assuming an avatar helped students feel less embarrassed when presenting their ideas to the class and increased the engagement of quieter students.2

Avatars give students a sense of anonymity, making them especially beneficial for those who are naturally introverted or struggle with social anxiety.

Simply put, avatar-based learning environments offer the freedom to explore new ideas without fear of being judged. They also provide equal opportunity, as physical appearance is ever-changing, leaving no room for prejudice.

Expert image border Mantas Kondratavicius
Mantas Kondratavicius
CEO at BoomeranGO!

Speaking of accessibility, my vision for BoomeranGO! was to help all children lead healthy lives. We have many plans, like introducing features to help families raising kids with type 1 diabetes, which means building a whole new mechanism to teach about insulin dosing and glucose. We’re also thinking about the technical roadmap to introducing avatars in wheelchairs.

Why Virtual Identity Can Lead to Gaming Addiction

The world of gaming has come a long way from the days of Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros. Video games are now a major source of entertainment for people of all ages, with the industry generating $7.4 billion in revenue in 2021 alone.3

With continuous technological development, video games are becoming more and more immersive, increasing concerns about the negative effects of gaming.

Problematic gaming can be defined as a set of compulsive behaviors that come with gaming. This includes obsessing over games, feeling moody when not able to play, and the inability to reduce the amount of time spent playing video games.4

When left unchecked, problematic gaming can be disruptive and lead to a lack of focus, poor sleep quality, and fatigue and may contribute to the development of mood or anxiety disorders.5

What is often overlooked, however, is that problematic gaming behaviors can be exacerbated by avatar identification.

According to a new study, avatars may contribute to problematic gaming.6 In this study, researchers looked into the relationship between avatar identification and problematic gaming through the lens of self-concept clarity.

Self-concept clarity means clearly understanding yourself – your identity and goals in life.

The study found that individuals who lack a strong sense of self may be more vulnerable to problematic gaming behaviors. Players who are unsure of who they are as people may be seeking to fulfill their identity-related needs through their in-game avatar.

For example, games with extensive avatar customization options, such as Cyberpunk 2077 or Hogwarts Legacy, provide players with unique opportunities to create an idealized version of themselves.

This can make them fixate on this new version of themselves and become obsessive overachieving status within the game, leading to extended gaming sessions and other problematic gaming behaviors.

Avatars for Better Health: Enhancing Learning and Self-Care for Patients

Despite concerns about becoming too attached to your avatar, avatar-based technology has positive applications, especially in patient education.

Expert image border Mantas Kondratavicius
Mantas Kondratavicius
CEO at BoomeranGO!

As the times change, so must our teaching methods. Children and teens spend a big chunk of their time online these days. Instead of fighting this shift, I wanted to embrace it. Kids have trouble learning from boring textbooks, but they enjoy playing – they’re kids, after all. So at BoomeranGO!, we merged the two – HealthEd and mobile gaming.

The avatars in the game are always striving for a balanced lifestyle. For example, they only accept balanced meals – no caloric restrictions or only burgers and fries. The avatars are also strict with their sleep time – no gaming at night. Since the kids customize their avatars, they have a deeper connection with them and are more likely to follow their lead.

BoomeranGO! game
Health Reporter edit

The effectiveness of avatar-based interventions in improving chronic disease knowledge, self-care behavior, and self-efficacy was analyzed in a systematic review.

It suggests that avatar-based technology (such as mobile apps or online programs) has the potential to improve learning outcomes and foster healthy habits among patients with chronic diseases.7

Not only is it more engaging than reading pamphlets, but it also tackles the issue that no one talks about – low literacy and how it limits patient education.

Avatars can use animations, simulations, and spoken dialogue to deliver educational content, making it more accessible to patients with low literacy or people who speak English as a second language.

By using avatar-based technology, healthcare providers can ensure quality access to educational content for patients of different literacy levels.

The Virtual Coach: How Avatars Boost Cognitive Performance in ADHD Children

What about avatars that take the role of instructors instead? Incorporating interactive avatars into online learning resources may be beneficial for young students, especially children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Researchers suggest that interactive avatars, able to provide real-time feedback, improve cognitive performance. They found that the implementation of interactive avatars helps children with ADHD direct their attention to the task at hand by providing direct feedback on their behavior.8

Web application screenshots
Fabio, Rosa & Caprì, Tindara & Iannizzotto, Giancarlo & Nucita, Andrea & Mohammadhasani, Nasrin. (2019)

Not only do they give out tasks and instructions on how to do them, but interactive avatars also maintain the student’s attention by giving vocal prompts when they are not paying attention.

This is possible due to face detection technology embedded into the interactive avatars. It allows them to follow the student’s eye movements and posture and correct them when necessary.

In the context of children with ADHD, interactive avatars can serve as an educational tool that helps educators direct children’s attention, helping them stay focused, organized, and on task.

In addition, this technology could help students with ADHD feel more at ease with themselves, which could reduce ADHD masking.

Conclusion

With the rise of online health learning, avatars have become a valuable tool in helping maintain engagement within both traditional and virtual classrooms.

Expert image border Vaiva Mas
Vaiva Mas
VP of Brand and Communications at BoomeranGO!

Throughout human history, people have carefully managed how they are portrayed in the public eye. They often create a better version of themselves – someone who’s still them but might be more courageous, outgoing, and even makes healthier choices.

I see the same playing out in HealthEd, especially in educating kids. Growing up, we all mimic our favorite cartoon and movie characters. They embody the parts of us that we’d like other people to see in us. That’s why using diverse avatars to carry the health message can be so effective in health education.

Avatar-based technology makes online learning more dynamic, enabling students to participate in virtual classrooms, express themselves without the fear of judgment, and collaborate with other students.

Positive reinforcement can go a long way. By embedding interactive features into avatars, avatar-based technology can also be used to create a supportive learning environment for individuals struggling with a short attention span.

In the context of patient education, avatars show promise in simplifying complex medical information through animations and simulations, providing patients with a better understanding of their condition and ways to treat it.

Ultimately, the main goal of avatar-based technology is to provide learners with an engaging and immersive learning experience that rivals traditional learning methods. 

By harnessing the power of avatars, education becomes more engaging and collaborative, creating a new era of learning opportunities.

Sources

  1. Learning as avatars transforms virtual classrooms:
    https://www.sfu.ca/sfunews/stories/2020/11/learning-as-avatars-transforms-virtual-classrooms-.html
  2. Using avatars and virtual environments in learning: What do they have to offer?
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/39707142_Using_avatars_and_virtual_environments_in_learning_What_do_they_have_to_offer
  3. Video Game Addiction Statistics – Recovery Village
    https://www.therecoveryvillage.com/process-addiction/video-game-addiction/gaming-addiction-statistics/
  4. An international consensus for assessing internet gaming disorder using the new DSM-5 approach:
    https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/add.12457
  5. Chandra R, Kumar S, Bahurupi Y, Rawat VS. The Association of Problematic Online Gaming Behavior With Mental Well-Being and Depressive Symptoms Among Students of Professional Colleges in Rishikesh. Cureus. 2022 Feb 8;14(2):e22007. doi: 10.7759/cureus.22007. PMID: 35282523; PMCID: PMC8908279
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8908279/
  6. Avatar identification and problematic gaming: The role of self-concept clarity
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7539898/
  7. Wonggom, Parichat1; Kourbelis, Constance1; Newman, Peter1,2; Du, Huiyun1; Clark, Robyn A.1,3. Effectiveness of avatar-based technology in patient education for improving chronic disease knowledge and self-care behavior: a systematic review. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports 17(6):p 1101-1129, June 2019. | DOI: 10.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003905
    https://journals.lww.com/jbisrir/Abstract/2019/06000/Effectiveness_of_avatar_based_technology_in.12.aspx
  8. Fabio, Rosa & Caprì, Tindara & Iannizzotto, Giancarlo & Nucita, Andrea & Mohammadhasani, Nasrin. (2019). Interactive Avatar Boosts the Performances of Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Dynamic Measures of Intelligence. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. 22. 10.1089/cyber.2018.0711.
    https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335373066_Interactive_Avatar_Boosts_the_Performances_of_Children_with_Attention_Deficit_Hyperactivity_Disorder_in_Dynamic_Measures_of_Intelligence
Written by Nadzeya Sankovich
Nadzeya Sankovich is the Vice President of Communications at Health Reporter. Previously a professional journalist, she continues to write scientific articles and conduct research. With a background in sociology and medicine, she has worked with various healthcare organizations, from charities to telemedicine platforms.

Nadzeya is also a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists and a volunteer for a non-profit organization that helps underserved communities. Through her work, she empowers people to take charge of their health and well-being.
The article was fact checked by Donika Vata, MD
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