Lentis/Social Norms in Virtual Worlds

Habitat, Second Life, Eve Online, World of Warcraft and Microsoft Kinect's Ellie embody the history, development, and current state of social norms in virtual worlds. Habitat was the first attempt at a large-scale virtual community that sparked the start of social norms in virtual worlds. Second Life, World of Warcraft and Eve Online dominate as popular player-driven virtual communities, combining socialization and group organization[1]. Today, Microsoft developed Ellie to explore how virtual worlds can diagnose and treat patients. Sometimes social norms in virtual worlds are taken from the real world and other times they are created as needed within virtual worlds[2].

A yellow submarine in Second Life.

Social NormsEdit

Social norms are informal understandings that govern how individuals dress, communicate, and behave in society[3]. They are enforced formally through sanctions, and informally through body language and eye contact[4]. The government enforces norms that have evolved into societal laws with fines and prison time. Being ridiculed or kicked out of a social group are two examples of informal sanctions taken against an individual[4]. Both official and unofficial social norms are seen online.
Network etiquette or Netiquette is a set of rules that define proper online behavior[5]. Virginia Shea’s book Netiquette contains ten core rules for online social interaction. One rule is to respect people’s bandwidth and time[5]. Replying-all to a message with 10,000 recipients is poor netiquette and can crash a mail server. Other rules include "Remember the Human" and "Adhere to the Same Standard of Behavior as in Real Life"[5]. The same social norms that exist in real life carry over to the internet as well as their sanctions. Moderators and administrators of virtual worlds can enact formal sanctions against players that don't follow netiquette with suspensions or bans.


Key PlayersEdit

Game developers, game moderators, and players each play a key role in creating and enforcing social norms in virtual worlds. Game developers enforce social norms by writing code. They can prevent certain behaviors and encourage others, such as prohibiting stealing or killing. Game developers control acceptable dress and fashion by limiting options for what avatars can look like. Moderators enforce social norms through formal sanctions. The code can’t enforce all social norms, such as what players say. Moderators ban players for abusive language, cheating, and anything else that is against the rules or social norms of the game. Finally, players informally enforce social norms. Players can either kick misbehaving players out of their guild or ignore them. They also combat social norms put in place by developers through hacks or cheats, which change how things look or behave.

Unique PlayersEdit

A scientific community within Second Life.
LifeChurch.tv is a Christian church with eleven campuses in the United States. Recently, it opened its twelfth campus in Second Life, the largest virtual world. In this setting, players can connect with others across the globe to discuss their faith. This open and semi-anonymous environment features recurring bible studies and activities for members[6]. SciLands is another Second Life user community which is devoted to science and technology. It has more than 20 active member organizations, including government agencies, universities, and museums. These unique user groups have penetrated the virtual world environment in a way that promotes idea and information sharing. These virtual worlds benefit from a controlled environment where social norms help to unofficially govern community members.

Virtual World Case StudiesEdit


Habitat was a virtual community that was completely governed by its citizenry. Users were immediately responsible for creating laws and establishing acceptable behavior within Habitat. Developers responded to users' requests throughout the game's lifetime by adding new features and game regions. A huge ethical controversy arose when developers introduced guns and violence because players started robbing and killing others. Players began asking questions like: Is an avatar an extension of a human being? Is Habitat murder a crime? In reactance, anti-violence motivated the opening of the first Habitat church: the Order of the Holy Walnut. Its members did not carry weapons, steal, or participate in violence. In addition to preventing violence, players wanted to protect themselves from in-game theft. As such, players created a voting mechanism, rounded up volunteers, and elected a Sheriff who became an unofficial game moderator[7]. With the introduction of a church and Sheriff, social interactions in Habitat's community became governed by the same social norms in today's world[2].

Eve OnlineEdit

EVE Online
Economists use virtual worlds as a place to conduct economic experiments using decisions people make in virtual economies. Research shows that people behave similarly in the real world as in virtual worlds[8]. Eve Online's economy supports economic experiments because it is almost entirely player driven. Within the game it is illegal to use hacks and to trade virtual items for real money. Instead, players can trade with each other using Eve Online's own virtual currency, ISK. Trading scams and unethical behavior that are illegal in real life are allowed and encouraged by Eve Online, creating a conflict between the player's real life morals and virtual actions[9]. In addition to encouraging unconventional social norms, Eve Online perpetuates gender bias. One study on Eve Online found that all female players, with either gender avatar, and male players using a female avatar, were less successful than male players using a male avatar[10]. Social norms are challenged and recreated in Eve Online, providing an interesting platform for social ethics and economic research.

Psychological FindingsEdit

Proteus EffectEdit

The Proteus Effect is the phenomenon where the appearance of an avatar affects the player’s behavior online and offline [11]. Dr. Nick Yee is one of the leading research scientists studying the proteus effect. He describes it as the Proteus Paradox, saying, “While we assume that virtual worlds are an escape from reality, they are … perpetuating the status quo. And while we assume that virtual worlds allow us to reinvent ourselves, they are .. powerful psychological tools for shaping how we think and behave”[12]. In his studies, he found that if a player used an attractive avatar, they shared a statistically significant larger amount of personal information with strangers as compared to those with less attractive avatars. He also found that players with taller avatars were more likely to suggest an unfair bargain than those with shorter avatars[11]. Finally, a study conducted by Jesse Fox showed a statistically significant relationship between showing a player their "doppelgänger" avatar exercising and their likelihood to exercise in the following 24 hours[13].
Yee’s studies with the Proteus Effect have brought to light social norms that translate from reality into virtual worlds. Interpersonal-distance (IPD) is the distance between two people which varies according to cultural influence[14]. Remland et.al (1995) found that the IPD between males is larger than the IPD between females, which are both larger than the IPD between mixed sexes. Yee (2006) found that the IPDs trends established in real life translate accurately to virtual world avatar interaction[15].
Social norms in the popular virtual reality game, World of Warcraft, are also consistent with gender roles studied in real life. A commonly researched gender stereotype is that females are more nurturing than males. A 2011 study found this particular stereotype in World of Warcraft, where female avatars healed more often than male avatars[16]. Dr. Yee decided to study this phenomenon using gender reversal, where a male participant played as a female avatar and a female participant played as a male avatar. He found that a statistically significant larger amount of his participants submitted to their virtual identity gender roles[16]. Therefore, avatar appearance not only affects player behavior but also perpetuates gender roles and norms found within the game and outside of the game.

Ellie and Microsoft KinectEdit

Ellie is a virtual human that appears in a realistic environment. She organizes and evaluates user behavioral data to help diagnose depression and other mental health issues. Users directly interact with Ellie using a Microsoft Kinect and a monitor. Verbal and non-verbal behaviors of both the user and Ellie, like their facial expressions, gaze, and gestures, drive the direction of the interaction[17]. All social norms and cues closely resemble those of a psychotherapy session. Like humans, Ellie builds rapport by nodding at the right time, urging patients with a well-timed “uh-huh”, and knowing when to stop talking. A study at the University of Southern California found that patients were more willing to open up to Ellie than to a human therapist, mostly because they felt like they were not being judged by the computer program[18]. In this case, the social norms of real life are directly coded into Ellie so that the social interaction between human patient and computer psychologist is realistic.

Related ResearchEdit

The Proteus Effect and social norms found within virtual worlds may be generalized to other, less graphic-based environments such as Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit. Although not technically virtual worlds, they promote anonymous online communication. People’s ability to create an ulterior identity and post content through their screen-name can enable the Proteus Effect. The Proteus Effect requires a person to establish a strong connection to their ulterior identity[11]. For example, the person tweeting on behalf of VodkaVendettas would have to assume a confident, mean, and semi-alcoholic presence in their tweets when, instead, they are timid and shy.
Social norms are found in social media platforms, such as Facebook, that are not anonymous. People measure the value of their profile or posts based on the number of “likes” they receive. This is positive reinforcement of what type of material should be shared with one's friend group, creating a social norm[19]. Posts that are considered inappropriate can be banned by anyone who sees it. This type of behavior suggests that social norms are established and maintained through daily interaction.
The many platforms of virtual communication provide new ways to conform to, regulate, and change social behavior. Social media platforms and virtual worlds are used to perpetuate identities and social roles seen online and offline.


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