Decoupling Avatar Appearance and Behavior

by Hap Aziz

Let’s explore further the topic of the affects of avatar behavior and appearance on both the user as well as other participants in the avatar relationship. First, I need to point out that there are two types of behavior:

  1. Actions that are not related at all to the appearance
  2. Actions that are constrained by appearance and that result from appearance mannerisms; i.e., those behavioral quirks that are interwoven with appearance

In the last post I began to explore the manner in which appearance and behavior can be (and often are) separate and isolated from each other. The definitions seem obvious: appearance is how we look while behavior is what we do. I went on to suggest that behavior is often determined or constrained by appearance—as individuals we do many things based on societal expectations of what we should be doing. It may be as extreme as picking a profession based on physique—the big guy who plays college football, or it may be something more subtle but equally as constraining.

There is an additional element to the appearance/behavior relationship, and that is the idea that the physical, often involuntary behaviors we all exhibit have a deep connection with our appearance and how we are perceived by others. Bailenson and Beall identify this (and state that it typically received very little attention) and discuss it in the context of the Transformed Social Interaction model as a form of nonverbal communication. For example, how someone else’s avatar makes eye contact with your avatar (or you) will go a long way to determining how you accept that avatar, and, ultimately, how you accept that avatar’s actual person behind the scenes. This is not a trivial matter: Chartrand and Bargh (p. 893) provide evidence for something they term the “Chameleon Effect.” That effect explains that people are more likely to be influenced by others that exhibit non-verbal behavior that mimics our own.

Bailenson and Beall go on to describe “digital chameleons”: avatars that mimic behavioral appearances and that have the effect that Chartrand and Bargh describe. However, my take is that the idea of digital chameleons can (and is already starting to) go much further than Bailenson and Beall originally envisioned based on the newer technologies such as motion capture (even facial motion capture), 3-D modeling techniques, and so on. As a part of the mimicry process, audio mimicry can contribute to the chameleon effect, so consider the extent to which actual people can be recreated through digitized audio for precise reproductions.

Though it may seem farfetched at this point (or perhaps somewhat gimmicky), the stimulation of the olfactory senses would do a tremendous amount to create the chameleon. Smell is our oldest sense, and the power of scents to send us back into particular memories is compelling.

Where does this lead? I would predict a type of profiling technology where a user (or set of users) is quizzed on a range of measures, and avatars are then built to specification with the intent to evoke particular responses—either positive or negative. Consider the question of people taking on avatar personas in order to gain an understanding of another race, for example. If the avatar meant to expand the person’s consciousness regarding race is also imbued with the characteristics of that person’s mother, say (assuming that was a positive relationship), then the power to transform understanding is multiplied greatly.

At the same time, the power to manipulate can corrupt as well. This is brave new world stuff with which we’re playing.


Chartrand, T.L., & Bargh, J. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology. 76(6): 893-910.


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Filed under avatars, games, motion capture, simulation, virtual identity

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