Still a vague and distant concept, the metavers is often defined as a parallel universe made up of virtual worlds. Many companies, such as Meta or Microsoft, invest in their construction. Their users – who will have fun, work and socialize – will be represented by avatars, their virtual identity, more or less close to their own identity. Creating this digital representation is also one of the first tasks that people who enter a virtual world have to perform.
An avatar can have an appearance that is faithful to the user or be completely different. In the metaverse, people are not only prone to present themselves in a different form, but also to adopt different behavior.
The avatar, a way to play with your identity
In order to understand these representations, but also to form a picture of future attitudes in this universe of digital worlds, the French company Webedia, which specializes in online media, conducted a survey among people aged 18 to 34. She was able to understand the subject thanks to the video game as a virtual alternate world. From his observation it appears that the avatar corresponds to a “Self Split”, in which we mainly find the wishes of the player. It is a field of expression and self-affirmation.
According to Michael Stora, a psychologist and psychoanalyst who co-founded the Observatory of Digital Worlds in the Humanities, individuals can use this digital representation to embody another person they are not used to: In short, the avatar incarnation is in fact often a form of staging of a self that is not always assumed. We all sometimes have a mask in us that we wear socially, but the mask we often present in virtual spaces is in itself a witness to something that is sometimes not always accepted. For example, if you are someone who is inhibited and shy in life, your avatar may be completely outgoing. †
He believes that this virtual identity is probably a form of betrayal of the social self, as well as cross-dressing and the ability to do what a person usually does not dare to be.
“The issue of ethics and empathy is at the heart of virtual worlds. †
This is one of the advantages of the avatar: you can play with your identity. However, this can be dangerous, especially in the context of addiction. For the psychologist, addiction is a form of avoidance of the real self in order to be mainly just the virtual self. So it is possible that the digital self takes precedence over the real self so much that an individual no longer dares to be, act and be heard in the real world.
A problem that has already been observed among influencers on social networks such as Instagram: “In the end they are avatars with a hypertrophic virtual self with an economic model behind it, sometimes at the expense of the real me. This kind of false self can lead to a pathology that resembles a form of burnout. By being no more than an idealized and virtual self, our real self no longer has a right to exist, but it is clear that we cannot forever avoid what we really are. †
Another danger with avatars: in virtual worlds they are the only way to perceive the user, besides the sound of the voice. In other words, if this digital representation allows us to be what we dare not be, it can also be used to say what we dare not say, sometimes for the worse. Someone can make racist or hateful comments because he can hide behind his avatar, but also because he only perceives the other virtually. “The issue of ethics and empathy is at the heart of virtual worlds: even before we see what happens to the metaverses, we can see how damaging and terribly aggressive the virtual relationship can be. Obviously, the reflection on these worlds exists from finding the sources of design, of technological staging that would make it possible to commemorate the other avatar as one who also has the ability to be and who is not, is not just something that one can manipulate or destroy”says Michael Stora.
During this conference on the metaverse, the psychologist proposed a solution “a little bit crazy” to combat racism and sexism: a form of symbolic punishment consisting in forcing a user to embody the avatar of the person he has harmed over a period of time, so that he becomes aware of the violence of his act. In the case of racism, it would mean that a white avatar has to embody a black avatar for one or two months.
The question of time is indeed important to generate empathy: “In general there is the idea that it is over time that things, in emotional processes, exist. Just because you go there for an hour doesn’t mean you’ll actually feel the emotions unique to your avatar embodiment.explains the psychoanalyst.
While virtual reality is seen as a way to regain empathy, these experiences should not be short-lived. It would take Michael Stora a month or two to feel or imagine what it would be like to experience racism, for example.
The need for rules in the face of avatar excesses
If the metaverse is under construction, other social issues are already present in the first iterations. Since February, Meta has been offering a feature to protect users from harassment on its virtual reality platforms. called Personal boundary, this is a personal boundary that prevents avatars from getting too close to each other. This feature was introduced in a context where two women claimed to have been sexually harassed by avatars in Meta’s virtual spaces.
While this kind of behavior is punished in the real world, it’s not yet the case in the metaverse. Rules must indeed be invented for these digital worlds. The French are also in favor of it: according to a poll by Ifop, they are 47% in favor of the introduction of the same rules in the virtual worlds as in the real world by the States.
According to Michael Stora, this is a real social problem: “The internet is built on a rather exciting dictate, namely that of freedom of expression, a space where it is possible to say everything, show everything and, finally, be able to break with some form of social hypocrisy and maybe society repressive. We soon realized the excesses, because in the end it is through specific legal frameworks that, for example, racist comments are punished.”
Besides the need for a legal arsenal close to the real world in virtual spaces, he believes the challenge of the future will be moderation: “We can totally imagine that in the metaverses there is a moderation that is really in order, something that should already exist in the major social networks. That is, very simply, a force like the law enforcement or like Police Secours, people who enforce the law and, why not, impose penalties such as exile. †
Apart from the avatars, the psychologist – who started working on video games with the Observatory and had developed an interest in social networks – fears that Meta wants to reproduce on the metaverse his economic and philosophical model, namely that of execution, success or even beauty at all costs. He also finds it disturbing that thinking about this universe is mostly about how to make a lot of money for now, since this is the “businessmen” who invested the most in it. In addition to companies looking to develop the metaverse, these virtual worlds mainly attract brands, many of which want to offer their products to users. So the question of rules does not arise when the need is felt.