Social Inclusion through Virtual Worlds

Social Inclusion through Virtual Worlds

Hein de Graaf (Social Psychologist, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-3673-6.ch017
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In this chapter, the theoretical foundation of the use of virtual worlds (3D environments) to strengthen the personal social network of people who are challenged in that area, especially the elderly, is described. The psychological (bordering on sociological and anthropological) aspects of “living” in a virtual “world,” such as Second Life, are described. Opportunities and threats of those aspects regarding the possibilities of strengthening the personal network and quality of life are indicated. The chapter is based on a 5-year research project. The concrete outcome of which is translated into real life projects under the name VayaV. VayaV is described in this chapter as a case study. The Dutch municipalities all agree that the main social problems facing their citizens are exclusion, feeling lonely, passivity, and lack of friends and an adequate personal social network. In the latest figures, more than a third of the people who were interviewed (a cross section of the whole Dutch population) said: I am often lonely and I am suffering because of it. With their consent, a virtual environment is developed based on the research project in Second Life, in such a way that people who do not like computers and know nothing about digital social networks can meet and have fun and form a community of friends and acquaintances. In this case, there is more to the VayaV approach than playing a game in which someone has set the rules and goals for you. It is more like everyday life where people set their own goals and rules, according to their own values and norms.
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More and more presenters start their presentation with: “I am a Baby boomer, 65 years of age….” This is a strange way of introducing themselves, as if their age is defining them. But more and more people come to realise that this a relevant introduction in presentations, even in very serious circles. Age has become a defining characteristic. And admitting that somebody is part of the increasing group of ‘elderly citizens, seniors’ or whatever euphemism is used, seems to become more and more important.

There is a lingering and pervasive stigma toward older people: we are seen as a burden, instead of as an opportunity. We seem to be a problem in the future years, increasing the ‘Crisis’, because we are often sick, disabled and in constant need of expensive care. My answer to this stigma is: of course we are human and therefor fragile. But most of us will be able to handle it, even in a future when we will be even more challenged, with a little help from our friends. But we would be lost without those friends. And a characteristic of growing old is, as we all know, losing friends and the ability to make new ones. Dorothy Field is cited in an article about friendship in (1999):

Older adulthood, usually considered to begin when a person reaches about sixty-five years of age, is marked by two kinds of changes that affect friendships. On the one hand, increasing health concerns, reduced mobility, and declining vigor reduce opportunities for contact with friends and the energy the individual has to devote to them. On the other hand, retirement and reduced social and family obligations increase the free and uncommitted time the individual has to nurture existing friendships and to develop new ones. Social networks are a must for us, not a choice. The challenge lies there: how to strengthen our social networks, even the more challenged among us ‘elderly’.

Until the end of 2011, I worked for the Dutch Association of Municipalities (VNG). The municipalities must assist their citizens, especially the elderly, to live their life to the full, using their experience, talents and possibilities where possible and giving them a hand where needed. In The Netherlands, there is now a law for this: Wmo (Wet maatschappelijke ondersteuning: the Societal support Act). The municipalities found out that their citizens to a large extend were suffering from the same ‘disease’: loneliness. Van Tilburg and Gierveld found out that approximately 30% of the Dutch population feels lonely often. One third of them to such extend that they are suffering from it. They feel sick, often literally.

There is more evidence that lonely, isolated people have more health problems than active persons. Several papers from a recent meeting of the IFA (International Federation on Aging) in May 2012 in Prague confirmed this to be the case all over the world. Paoletti (2012) wrote participation in social activities and social network is important for the quality of life of older people, but also it has preventive effects on mental and physical functioning. Dobson and McLaughlin (2012) stated that high levels of social support and engagement may in fact help sustain good health and functional ability. Baecker et al. (2012) discussed that isolation may lead to feelings of loneliness and depression, which tends to reinforce loneliness and isolation. Both conditions are connected to poor physical health and to increased mortality.

Hong (2012) found that elderly who worried more about social isolation tended to have poor health, whereas those who had more positive image about themselves who participated more in social activities and who went out more often showed higher level of health.

Finally, Schwarz-Woelzl (2012) stated that to be embedded in social networks contributes significantly to older people’s quality of life. It leads to lower rates of depression, decreased risk of dementia and lower mortality rates.

So, for social and for health reasons it is very important for the municipalities to support and facilitate their citizens to be active and have a strong social network. Imagine the very unpleasant surprise for the municipalities as they realized that for those 30%, loneliness and lack of social connections are at the heart of many problems they have. At the same time they realised that it is very hard to fight loneliness with the old methods of information, advice and training they used before. This traditional methods did not work!

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