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We were not surprised to read this piece by Alicia Ashby over on the Engaged site about how More Social Games Including Customizable Avatars.

How new users learn

Observing how new users learn to use a new platform and following groups of avatars through their initial log-in to full immersion provided us with ample first-hand data that the ability of a user to customize their avatar helped them immerse more quickly.  We tested our hypothesis by changing the quantity and quality of avatar customization content available to our new users.  We found that when we provided low-to-mediocre quality content as part of the experience, that the overall stickiness of the orientation location was static or declined, whereas when we provided high quality content this stickiness increased dramatically, particularly amongst users representing themselves as female.

The fact that the orientation location was sticky meant that new users were more likely to remain in the location long enough to learn to use the interface reasonably well, and in turn this increased the likelihood of immersion.  There are other factors that contribute to immersion, of course, but we found that enabling new users to align their avatar more closely with their internal personal representation was critical to enabling them to proceed to immersion.

An avatar that can be customized to a user’s personal representation can be regarded as akin to a well-fitting set of clothing.  Poorly fitted clothing makes the wearer uncomfortable and self-conscious; we have all had the experience where we were more focused on our clothing that wasn’t quite right instead of focusing on whatever event we had dressed for.  Likewise, wearing avatar customization content that doesn’t quite fit or isn’t appropriate to the user’s internal image is equivalent to the poorly fitted clothing previously mentioned. The avatar user is equally uncomfortable with his or her selections as he or she might be in the atomic world wearing shoes that don’t fit correctly.

The new user will not be able to express why they are uncomfortable because they aren’t yet immersed, certainly not enough to be able to reflect that their visual representation on the screen is not compelling to them or, even worse,  actively driving them further from immersion.

That this relationship of stickiness to quality avatar customization content should be a result in itself should not be surprising.  We are, after all, social animals, and one of the things that is drilled into us at an early age is that what we wear and how we present ourselves is a way to identify members of social groups belong to or may wish to belong to.  Visual signals are important to a species where so much of our interaction with our environment is obtained through our sense of sight.  Being able to quickly identify friend or foe enables a competitive advantage in the atomic world, and this is equally important in virtual worlds where being able to look at someone and determine if they are in your social tribe simply by what they choose to wear can enable a level of emotional security that further enables immersion.

Nor does it surprise use that the lead sentence to this article reflects this importance: “Customizable avatars are one of the defining features of virtual worlds and may soon become a major feature in social gaming.”

All we can say is, ‘Imagine that.’

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