#74: Richard Gilbert on Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments investigating Identity, Relationships & Sexuality

Richard Gilbert is a Professor of Psychology at LMU who founded the P.R.O.S.E. Project, which does Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments. He’s been researching the psychological impacts of virtual worlds like Second Life, and has found that people feel psychological immersed in another environment. There is also a lot of idealism in terms of showing your ideal self, but overall people experience these virtual worlds as being real, albeit an idealized version of reality.

richard-gilbertRichard has studied a number of different aspects of how people are using avatars in virtual worlds including everything from sexuality, friendships, relationships, intimate relationships, marriage, role playing of children, role playing of families, addictive issues, identity issues and constructing a new identity in the virtual world, changing genders, and changing of physical appearance.

He explains that some people play with identity to have a corrective experience from their childhood by playing a child or a parent of a child. Or there’s also people who change genders in order to explore alternative sexualities through relationships with the same sex, but through a heterosexual virtual avatar. He found that 11% of Second Life users are a different gender than their avatar, and that over 90% of that 11% were males.

When it comes to exploring identity in a virtual world, Richard says that everyone wants to be different, but that it can be liberating to be the person that you always wanted to be.

Richard says that immersing students in a learning environment makes them less passive and provides more opportunities to be creative, which ultimately provides a more active and deeply-engaged education where people learn and remember more.

Finally, he sees that the potential of virtual reality being the creation of a metaverse that’s will provide be a parallel context for human culture. Our senses will be engaged at all levels there, and it’s where education, entertainment and all dimensions of reality all be going. In the end, he seems that this alternative world will provide psychology and emotional reactions that will be indistinguishable from reality.


  • 0:00 – Intro. Professor of Psychology at LMU. PROSE Project is the Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments. Interested in user’s experience and how it affects them and society.
  • 0:55 – Have studied the following issues in virtual environments: sexuality, friendships, relationships, intimate relationships, marriage, role playing of children, role playing of families, addictive issues, identity issues and constructing a new identity in the virtual world, changing genders, and changing of physical appearance
  • 2:31 – People don’t see virtual world as a game. Large majority feel psychologically immersed in another environment. A lot of idealism in terms of showing your ideal self. People experience as real, but are also in an idealized world as well.
  • 3:39 – Trying to remediate trauma. Studying this issue. Role playing a child and seek new parents to have a corrective experience. The parents could also be trying to do the same thing from a new perspective.
  • 5:20 – Playing with identity. Everyone wants to be different and be the person you always want to be can be liberating. Role players have multiple avatars. Multiple personality Order.
  • 7:00 – Surprises? People happier in their virtual relationships with better communication and more intimacy than in physical context. Only can do in virtual worlds is communicate and can develop intimate connections very quickly
  • 7:45 – Getting audio in second life and getting additional context
  • 8:40 – Modulating their voice with role playing. Some people switching genders to experiment with a gay lifestyle.
  • 9:40 – Audio masking is getting better
  • 10:10 – 11% operate as a different gender in Second Life, and of that 11%, then over 90% of them were males who were switching to a female avatar in Second Life. Rare for a woman to change to male. Females get more gifts, but also experimenting to empathize with woman or experiment with same-sex relationships but through a heteronormative context
  • 11:24 – History of the metaverse. Begin in literary forms. Lord of the Rings inspired people to create technology to create Dungeon and Dragon like experiences. Future of the metaverse. Need a transfer protocol to move through the 3D web with all of your 3D assets and not have walled gardens
  • 13:56 – Sees a Multidimensional Internet. In Second Life, he can pull up 2D content on screens including websites, email and Pandora music. Merger between the 1D Internet, 2D social networking, 3D physical reality & 3D space of Second Life. Motion capture and VR HMDs will
  • 15:41 – Education improved by immersion. Immerse in learning environment, they’re less passive and can be more creative. It’s more active and deeply engaged education. People learn and remember more.
  • 16:40 – Creating a metaverse that’s going to be a parallel context for human culture. Our senses are engaged at all levels there. Where education, entertainment and all dimensions of reality is going, an alternative world that is harder to distinguish between it’s psychology and emotional reactions.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.936] Richard Gilbert: My name's Richard Gilbert. I'm a professor of psychology at LMU. And about five years ago, I started a research lab called the PROSE Project. And that stands for Psychological Research on Synthetic Environments. So my interest has not been on how to create the technology from a computer science or engineering point of view, or even the applications themselves. I'm not an app developer or software developer. I'm more interested in the user's experience of it and how it affects the user and also society.

[00:00:53.514] Kent Bye: So what are some of these psychological impacts when it comes to people interacting with virtual environments?

[00:01:00.097] Richard Gilbert: Well, we've looked at all kinds of psychological and social processes. We've looked at sexuality in a virtual environment. We've looked at people who form relationships, friendships, intimate relationships. There are people who are married in a virtual world. There's a whole marriage industry. There are people who role-play children and are adopted by couples and they role-play families. We've looked at that. We've looked at the kind of addictive issue, the addictive possibility of some of these environments because they're so captivating. And we've also looked at identity issues, which is that what the avatar allows you to do is to construct a new identity. And some people construct an identity which is quite similar to their real world identity. It just takes them into another digital domain, but there's not a great deal of difference between their 3D self and their physical world self. But there are other people who have whole different lives. They may change genders. Certainly many of them change their physical appearance even if they stay in the same gender. So it gives us a chance to experiment with many different ways of being.

[00:02:31.580] Kent Bye: And what were some of the primary conclusions from some of your research in terms of what you're able to say based upon what you've looked at in terms of identity?

[00:02:39.685] Richard Gilbert: I would say that, number one, that people don't see the virtual world as a game. That they experience it, most of them, of course, you know, I'm speaking in generalities, but I would say that the large majority of people, when they're in the environment, they are not just immersed in a spatial environment, but they're psychologically immersed. so that if people form a relationship with another avatar, there's a kind of seriousness of it. So there is a kind of realism in the environment. At the same time, there's a lot of idealism in it too, in that you can depict yourself and act in the way you really want to be, sort of your ideal self. And so there's this strange mixture between people experience it as real, but are also in a kind of an idealized world at the same time.

[00:03:39.284] Kent Bye: And do you find that there is some connection to trauma earlier in the life where people may have a traumatic event in their childhood and they can have a child avatar and then do some sort of remediation or healing in that?

[00:03:52.467] Richard Gilbert: You're really right on there. We're doing the first study. There's actually a woman who's here. You might want to track her down. Her name is Kate Loveland, and she's in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Psychiatry at the University of Texas at Houston Medical Center. And she has a theory that what people are doing as child avatars is that they have experienced some at least negative events and probably traumatic events in childhood. So what they're doing is they present themselves or role-play a child in the virtual world and then seek new parents to kind of raise them as a corrective experience. The problem is, and this is all theory, we have not really analyze the data, yet we're still in the final data collection stages. That the people who form the virtual mother and father may be doing the same thing, that is wanting to reparent the child who represents their own childhood in a different kind of way. So you have traumatized people looking for idealized parents, playing a child, and you have traumatized individuals who are playing the parents of trying to treat a child better. And so unless somebody steps in and makes the pairing healthier, they may, in effect, end up hurting each other.

[00:05:18.948] Kent Bye: I see. There also seems to be a component of living in a culture where in the physical world you have geographic location, we have cultural expectations and identity that's pretty fixed, but yet in the virtual worlds that's sort of boundless in some sense. So what are you finding in terms of expectations or cultural norms that are driving people to play with their identity?

[00:05:41.135] Richard Gilbert: Well, just that everybody wants to be different and we're bound in this physical body and we're bound with our histories and our attributes and there's something creative and liberating to be that person that you never imagined you could be and to experiment with these different roles. But what I see is that the people who are experimenting, what they do is they have kind of a lead avatar that is their virtual representative of their real self. So I would have an avatar that is transparently the avatar of Richard Gilbert. Google my avatar and it will immediately kind of take you to Richard Gilbert. So there's really transparency between my virtual identity and my physical identity. The people who do a lot of role-playing and identity experimentation, they have oftentimes multiple avatars. And in fact, we wrote this one paper playing on the idea of multiple personality disorder. Because if you're in the physical world and you have different personalities, it's psychopathology. But in the virtual world, you could have multiple personalities, and that's an accepted thing to do.

[00:07:01.533] Kent Bye: And what has been one of the more surprising findings that you've come across in looking at these issues?

[00:07:08.550] Richard Gilbert: Oh, that's a good question. I think that in the relationship area that people were happier in their virtual relationships and that their communication was better and more revealing and in some ways intimate in the virtual context than in the physical context. And the way we explained that was that in the virtual context the only thing to do is communicate. you don't go into the virtual world to ignore people, you go into it to interact. So, people have very deep conversations sometimes and intimacy develops very quickly.

[00:07:46.076] Kent Bye: Well, I think one thing, you know, I'm assuming you've been looking at Second Life and Avatars in Second Life, but with the Oculus Rift coming and having motion controllers, you can start to get more body language and gesturing that happens beyond just the text communication. So, I'm curious about...

[00:08:01.724] Richard Gilbert: You have audio as well as text in Second Life. And of course, audio adds a layer of realism to it. Again, you have that choice. I can use my own voice through SL local audio. Or if it's a little laggy, I can use Skype in that environment. And it's my voice. But if I don't want the reality of my identity to be in there, if I'm wanting something else, they give you a bunch of what they call voice morphing possibilities. So I could take my words and turn into a female voice or a different kind of male voice and then no one would know it's connected to me.

[00:08:39.466] Kent Bye: And what have been some of the research findings you've had in terms of how people are using that type of modulation of their voice or communication in that way?

[00:08:47.171] Richard Gilbert: Yeah, it's mainly used for people who are role-playing and they don't want people to know the attributes of their physical life. One of the kind of things that's happened is let's say that you were a female and you wanted to experiment with a gay lifestyle. So you could create a female avatar. In the past, people who were doing something like that were restricted to text. And it became a sort of dead giveaway if the person refused to go to voice. It was very hard for them to explain why they were doing that. Sometimes they would say they have, you know, a voice problem or something like that or their computer's old or something. But most people wouldn't buy that. They would assume there was some sort of nefarious purpose and then insist either not communicate with them or insist that they go to audio. So now, by being able to mask the audio, you can go to audio and the other person doesn't know you're masking.

[00:09:49.135] Kent Bye: I see. It's that good you can't tell?

[00:09:51.596] Richard Gilbert: I think probably if you're an experienced person, you can. If you're really paying attention to that, looking for that. But if you're not experienced or you're not looking for that, I think the audio masking is getting better. And it sounds like a regular voice.

[00:10:10.441] Kent Bye: And you said you looked at sexual identity and gender expression, and what type of findings have you had from looking into that?

[00:10:16.385] Richard Gilbert: That people indicate that about 11% of people operate in Second Life as a different gender, which is interesting. And of those 11%, 90% of them, actually over 90%, are males that are role-playing as females. The number of females who change to males is extremely rare, which is interesting to us. And the reasons that people talk about, some of the men have said that they do it because females get more gifts. So they go out there and they get all these virtual gifts, that's one. Another one was just to, they're interested in sort of experimenting in how it was like to be a female, to try and understand females and their experience better. And some of them, of course, are kind of experimenting with a gay lifestyle. That by being a woman, they'll attract men, and then if they engage in virtual sex, they get an experience of same-gender sex, even though their virtual agent is observably a female.

[00:11:24.106] Kent Bye: And you had also mentioned that you'd done some study in the history of the metaverse, and I'm curious about if you were to kind of give a rough recap of how you see the origins of that and how it's evolved.

[00:11:35.599] Richard Gilbert: Yeah. It's going to be similar to my talk here, that I think many of these technologies begin in literary and artistic forms, that people imagine extraordinary worlds. I was mentioning to you that some people think that the beginning of virtual worlds was not in technology, but in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, because he created a world that then inspired people to create technology that people can experience it, not just in the depths of their imagination, but a little closer to that. Dungeons and Dragons was essentially modeled after Lord of the Rings. And there are many virtual worlds. You could say World of Warcraft ultimately traces its origin. So all those dungeons and castles and all that stuff really a lot of people link to Lord of the Rings. One of the speakers mentioned Snow Crash, Neil Stevenson's Snow Crash, which is a classic in the field, and in many ways, Second Life and all these social 3D worlds, he was very close in his imagining to what exists out there. So, we've traced these kind of literary precursors into the realm of technology and the social virtual world, and then it becomes a matter of refining the technology, bringing in voice, user-created content, Where we see in the future, what doesn't exist now is that in the current web, you can go through the HTTP protocol. You can move from any web, keep all of your assets, all of your information, and you can seamlessly move through the web. That doesn't exist right now in the 3D world because they're like these walled gardens like AOL used to be. You only get the content within that walled garden. And I think that one of the real barriers to the future of virtual reality is to come up with an analogous transfer protocol. So that you can have your avatar, you can go to any virtual world you want, transfer your inventory, just like in the physical reality or just like in the more two-dimensional or informational web.

[00:13:56.352] Kent Bye: So it seems like with the Oculus Rift, there seems to be a momentum of a popular explosion of virtual reality and that, you know, you look to things like Second Life as the early adopters and the innovators, but yet there's likely going to be some sort of crossing the chasm into the mainstream here soon. And I'm just curious about how you see that playing out.

[00:14:16.663] Richard Gilbert: I see it all ultimately merging into one gigantic, multidimensional internet. It's interesting that Facebook purchased the Oculus Rift. So Facebook is trying to add three-dimensionality to essentially a 2D program. Second Life, if you go in or any of the more advanced social virtual worlds, now have media screens. For example, in my virtual office in Second Life, I have several media screens that have browsers in them and allow me to pull up 2D content. So I go in my office, I sit there, I meet with a student avatar if they're out of town or something like that, and I have my Outlook page so that I can return email in Second Life. I have my Facebook page, and then I usually have Pandora playing music. So there's this merger between 1D internet, 2D social networking, my physical reality, and the three-dimensional space. That's where I think it's at. And the three-dimensionality of either social networking or even the advanced three-dimensionality of Second Life will, I think, things like motion capture and virtual reality headsets will just enhance the experience.

[00:15:41.143] Kent Bye: And since we are at the Immersive Education Initiative's Immersion 2014 conference, I'm curious as how you see education is improved by immersion.

[00:15:52.148] Richard Gilbert: There's a lot of research out there that says that if you can immerse someone in a learning environment, they're less passive, they can create, it's a kind of more active and deeply engaged education. That's the claim to fame. And there is some data that says that, you know, if you're working in, you know, getting a lecture, we're doing some of that, or if you're watching a video, it's different than if you move into the educational space. It seems like people remember things more, learn things more, etc.

[00:16:37.034] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential for what these immersive technologies like virtual reality could bring?

[00:16:42.839] Richard Gilbert: I think we're just creating, it's the metaverse, that we're basically creating a parallel context for human culture that will ultimately, as we move our sensory modalities more profoundly into these places, you know, the sense of sound, the sense of visual, the sense of motion. I don't know if we'll ever get tactile stuff. That seems a way off. But the more our senses are represented in a compelling way in these three-dimensional spaces, I really think that we're creating an alternative context for human culture. where education is going, where entertainment is going, where all the dimensions of reality are going to be represented in a dimensional cyberspace. That is an alternative world that is harder and harder to distinguish in terms of its psychology and emotional reactions. Thank you. I think we're going Check back next year. All right. I'm glad that we got this. All right.

[00:17:57.431] Kent Bye: Thank you

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