Educational Technology & Society 5 (4) 2002
ISSN 1436-4522

The Social Life of Avatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments

(Book review)

Reviewer: Sally Hong
Information Systems Department
Private Bag 11-222
Palmerston North
New Zealand

Book details:
The Social Life of Avatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments
Ralph Schroeder
2002, Great Britain: Springer-Verlag London Limited
ISBN 1-85233-461-4
223 Pages.


If you are interested in virtual environment (VE) and social interaction in various types of VEs, this book is an excellent resource. This book focuses on how people interact with each other in computer-generated virtual worlds. It explains the difference between traditional face-to-face interaction and interaction between persons inside VEs, what benefits the graphical representation of the user (Avatar) brings to the interaction in VEs, and how virtual communities are built up and organized.

I think that The Social Life of Avatars is an important book in the VE area, and has a place in the boardroom, classroom, study and desktop. The book discusses how people understand each other when they encounter only in the form of graphical representation - the Avatar, and how different VE systems affect the behavior between avatars. And related to the interaction between users in the VEs, readers can find the information how to improve the technology for effective interaction and cooperation in VEs.

This is not a totally theoretical and dense technical book about Virtual Environments and Avatars. It is a very readable volume, written in plain English. It is a book that you would probably pick up and read from cover to cover, and then return to the appropriate sections as and when necessary. It will serve you best as a reference book that you can use on a regular basis as you search for information about the social interaction in shared virtual environments.

The Social Life of Avatars is a volume in the Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) book series. It brings scientists in various disciplines to share experiences about the social interaction within VEs. The twelve chapters focus on different aspects of the field, including how people interact in the VEs in various systems and relevant technologies. However, this book mainly focuses on how people interaction happen in the virtual environment systems, because the editors of The Social Life of Avatars realize that the social interaction in VEs is not technologically driven.

The first chapter of The Social Life of Avatars gives readers an excellent overview in the virtual environment research area. It describes different types of VEs and outlines the core issues in this field, such as presence, communication, social configurations, and the relationship with offline life. Finally, the strategies of how to integrate these parts in a framework are discussed.

From chapter 2 to chapter 5, based on the existing online shared virtual systems, the social conventions are compared and the authors move a good step that attempts to set up the conventions to be followed by the VEs community. The topic of how people with their own Avatar interact and how Avatar appearance improves the interaction in the VEs are covered in detail in these chapters.

From chapter 6 to chapter 9, the authors go further to some more specific topics in VEs research area. Topics, such as using improvements into the VEs, usability of the systems, and potential of VEs, are discussed in detail. You can find information about how to implement improvements, such as supporting the formation of groups and status, and encouraging responsible behavior into the shared VEs, and also the discussion related to usability of VEs, and especially interface usability. The authors evaluate the social interaction within VEs by experiment and summarize that VEs are able to provide a number of possibilities that real world research does not.

From chapter 10 to chapter 12, each chapter addresses one special topic in this research area. In chapter 10, the author outlines the current state of social presence research and how this influences the research of different modalities of communication and collaboration in computer-mediated communication. Chapter 11 analyses the status differences in the shared VEs and opens a good start off point for readers who are interested in improving VEs by focusing on status differences. A detailed quantitative investigation of Microsoft’s V-Chat is described in chapter 12. It presents an attractive direction of what a quantitative study and logging of a VE can achieve.

In summary, The Social Life of Avatars gives readers two valuable points: how to improve the VEs and the potential that social interaction in virtual environments can be applied in various forms of computer-mediated interaction. Finally, let me recommend this book to you. Regardless of how experienced you are with virtual environments or virtual reality, you will find something of value to your work in this book and the resources it comprises.


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