EVOLVING IDENTITY ECONOMIES IN SOCIAL VIRTUAL WORLDS
Keywords:virtual worlds, virtual reality, embodiment, identity, avatars
It is only in the past few years that the public has had much access to embodied, immersive, social virtual worlds through consumer virtual reality hardware. While these new experiences are still restricted to those who can access the proper equipment and have sufficient network connectivity, academics and others have rushed to explore and explain them. A rich history of experimental research scaffolds our understanding of what the experience of embodiment in an avatar brings to social experiences in immersive virtual reality. However, properly understanding these phenomena will also require a deep understanding of the history of social virtual worlds. Historically, platform constraints and affordances have influenced how people experience and express the social self in virtual worlds, and this has resulted in different “places” having different cultures, norms, and behaviors. We discuss how these cultures and norms may affect what users expect from an embodied experience, and how these expectations in turn will affect their concerns about privacy and identity. Specifically, different virtual cultures will result in different forms of “identity economies” in which users will either pay or exchange data to achieve embodiment. To illustrate, we discuss two models of embodied virtual reality worlds. We propose that this framing will help us to better understand how virtual worlds have evolved and are experienced now; how they may be studied, and how they may continue to evolve in the future as VR technologies create new experiences, affordances and limitations.