Virtual World Professionals and the Interloper Effect in 3D Virtual Worlds

Virtual World Professionals and the Interloper Effect in 3D Virtual Worlds

Victoria McArthur (York University, Canada)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-854-5.ch021
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In this chapter we discuss virtual world professionals: real world employees deployed in virtual worlds for the purpose of representing a company or organization there. We investigate the notions of belonging and community in 3D virtual worlds, and identify the ways in which “belonging” and “not belonging” are constructed and perceived, especially in relation to so-called employee avatars. We explore the dimension of social stigma in virtual worlds and discuss the utility of the separate categories of outsiders and interlopers for inhabitant characterization. Our motivation for doing so is to determine the degree to which corporate presence can be mediated through the specific mechanism of employee avatar appearance. In considering the possibility that some employee avatars may be perceived as interlopers, we propose three methods for investigating the effect of their presence in virtual worlds, called the “interloper effect.”
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Social virtual worlds such as Second Life are not only a place in which users can socialize with one another; companies have also turned to these environments in order to explore new ways to connect with one another, recruit new hires, and offer virtual world services (Brandon, 2007). Because of the complex nature of these environments, social virtual worlds have been the subject of a number of high-level discussions surrounding online identity and online communities.

In addition to being a social virtual world, Second Life differs from other virtual worlds in that its users can conduct monetary business with one another directly through the use of Linden dollars (L$), Second Life’s own virtual currency. Currently, one can purchase 261 Linden dollars for one US dollar.1 This differs from the economic systems present in other popular game-based worlds, such as World of Warcraft (, in that the direct conversion between real world currency and virtual currency is generally not a feature of these environments.2 This ability to conduct monetary exchange, in combination with the ability to create virtual objects within Second Life, has led real world companies such as IBM and Sun Microsystems to invest in developing content for, and having a presence in, this virtual world (Brandon, 2007).

This chapter focuses on the virtual world professionals being deployed within Second Life by companies and the appearance of their avatars. Virtual world professionals are considered to be persons who are deployed within a virtual world, such as Second Life, for the purpose of representing their company or organization within the virtual world. We may also further distinguish these persons from other members of the virtual world community by describing the avatar they create and maintain for this purpose as an “employee avatar.” In this distinction, we acknowledge the fact that these virtual world professionals may maintain more than one avatar in the same virtual environment; one or more for personal use and one for professional use.

Current literature on avatars and avatar appearance focuses primarily on the psychological aspects of the relationship between the human pilot and the avatar (e.g., Dibbell, 2001), or the mechanics of avatar creation interfaces (Pace, Houssian, & McArthur, 2009). In considering how and why users customize their avatars a number of key motivating factors have been identified in the literature, such as the desire to create an idealized version of oneself (Ducheneaut, Wen, Yee, & Wadley, 2009), and fitting in (Neustaedter & Fedorovskaya, 2008). However, little attention has been given to the appearance and behaviour of avatars created for professional interactions in virtual worlds. This chapter seeks to explore the mechanics of avatar creation for virtual world professionals and employee avatar appearance. Specifically, how are virtual world professionals customizing their avatars and how are these avatars perceived by other members of the virtual community?

Interestingly enough, Second Life is not the first multi-user virtual environment to be used by professionals. A paper by Churchill and Bly (1999) identified the use of text-based MUDs in the workplace. In their paper, the authors presented the results of a series of in-depth interviews with 8 professionals using MUDs for work-related interactions. The results revealed that use of the MUD filled a valuable communication niche for these distributed, off-site employees. The authors described these text-based virtual rooms as giving users a sense of “space” in which they can feel “co-present.” On using the MUD to interact with co-workers, interviewees expressed mixed feelings. While some enjoyed using the space for collaboration, others disliked the metaphor and preferred the use of email. One respondent commented that she, “has multiple characters (or 'avatars') and uses [the MUD] for social and work purposes.”

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