The Psychology of Avatar Design & Customization

A blog post crossed our desk recently from Human Mosaic Systems talking about the importance of avatar design in order to increase immersion.

“As a result, organizations that use this environment need to begin to pay special attention to the psychology of design involved with the avatars used…The psychology of the avatar and our interactions with others in the space is what creates presence…This is an area that has not been focused on in the past in research, but one which is gaining importance and attention.”

Fashion Research Institute has been focusing attention in this area for quite a while now.  We conducted 18 months of research coupled with direct observation of thousands of avatars into how people use their avatars and how the quality (or lack thereof) of avatar customization content had an impact on people’s immersion into virtual worlds.  We then used this initial research to develop our orientation program, which we tested in Second Life as one of the Linden Lab-sanctioned Community Gateways in their formal Community Gateway program.

The Fashion Research Institute Gateway served about 65,000 new users who entered Second Life through our portal during a 12-month time span.  We continued to observe these new users and made continual changes to the orientation environment to best enhance the experience of these new users.  We consistently observed that the higher quality avatar customization content we provided, the stickier the experience became for the new user.  This in turn led to an increased likelihood of any given avatar user immersing.  We marked immersion as the point where users stopped referring to their avatars as it, or him, and began referring to their avatars as ‘me’.

Having completed more than 30 months of research into this area, as a necessary component for our organizational use of virtual worlds, the work we do with avatars and avatar development is based on data collected on over 65,000 subjects.

This research was used to develop our orientation portal for OpenSim.  The portal was completely developed using only content developed on the OpenSim platform.  This portal is active in ScienceSim ( as the entry point for the grid if you’d like to check it out.

Many organizations are already understanding the value. Preferred Family Healthcare, Inc. is a case in point. (see our previous post) Providing their users with additional choices in avatar customization was seen as a benefit to helping their youth project in delivering quality counseling services to an underserved population.

In the case of Science Sim, part of FRI’s research collaboration with Intel :abs was to provide premium content so that new users would immediately have options to not only customize their appearance but would also be able to build and create.  This further enhances the immersive buy-in, which enhances the likelihood of success of their project.