My avatar, my ‘imaginary friend’: the importance of play in social virtual worlds

“Imaginary friends”, writes Suzanne Hall,

are a happy, if mysterious, part of childhood. You may have trouble remembering the names of your grandchildren’s imaginary pals, or exactly what species they are, but you needn’t worry that their existence is a sign of a problem. Despite what you may have heard, imaginary friends are a normal, even positive part of growing up.

She references the research findings of Dr Marjorie Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and the author of Imaginary Companions and the Children who Create Them (Oxford University Press, 2001):

“Imaginary friends bolster confidence,” Taylor points out. “If you have an imaginary tiger by your side, you don’t have to be afraid to walk down the street or get up alone in the dark.” These friends also allow children to explore misbehavior and its consequences. “About one-third of all imaginary companions do not behave well,” Taylor says.

She goes on to suggest that “many adults create and interact with imaginary friends (and adversaries), as part of online role-playing games or”–and I here insert a dramatic pause in anticipation at the gasps of horror and indignation–“in virtual communities like Second Life” (my emphasis).

Please bear with me as (with possibly an occasional hint of mischievous relish) I explore two avenues that, I strongly suspect, will turn out to deliver interesting insights into the developmental and transformational value of play in social virtual worlds.  The first is generically with respect to academic and vocational learning; the second focused on social learning through experimenting with alternative behaviours.

The Third-Person Learner

In Second Life, OpenSim grids, and by default in most other social virtual worlds such as ActiveWorlds, Onverse, and 3DXplorer, the ‘camera’ views one’s avatar from a little way above and behind, extruding as it were a third-person character that is neither decisively Self nor not-Self, an ambivalent agent and persona whose agency and personhood may at moments seem to escape the controlling hand of the puppeteer.

Karl Kapp and Tony O’Driscoll, arguing in their excellent Learning in 3D (2010) the paedagogic case for avatar-based immersive virtual learning environments, cite experiments conducted by psychologists Lisa Libby (Ohio State University), Richard Eibach (Yale University), and Thomas Gilovich (Cornell University), that would seem to provide support for the authors’ contention that “the third-person perspective, the most common view in VIEs [virtual immersive environments], has some educational benefits over a first-person perspective typically experienced in a classroom or during an online virtual classroom session” (p.93).  Libby and her co-researchers had found of their subjects (students), being asked to “recall one of their most embarrassing moments … half of the students to re-imagine the humiliation in the first person, and the other half to re-imagine it in the third person”, that

Students who imagined acting in third person rated themselves as having changed significantly since the incident first occurred, while those who re-imagined in first person did not indicate that they had changed significantly.  It appears that the third-person perspective allowed the students to reflect on the meaning of their social miscues and then actually grow and change psychologically, while the first-person perspective did not cause a similar change.  (Kapp and O’Driscoll, op.cit., p.93)

The ability to imagine, consider, and weigh alternatives, to visualise and plan as yet imaginary future actions, to compare the possible with the real, as evidenced in language by its “what ifs”, “suppose that”, “might have”, “could”, “were it not for”, its conditional and future tenses, its modal verbs, its capacity to express hypothetical and counter-factual propositions, is arguably what most clearly distinguishes human beings from other animals.  (Cf. the concept of displacement in Charles Hockett’s Design Features of Language.)  Free-form social virtual worlds such as Second Life, whatever else they may represent to us, are congruent with our uniquely human ability to contemplate alternatives to the actual world.  A visual separation of oneself from one’s avatar, as with Libby’s first-person/third-person remembering, facilitates the separation of Who-I-am from an observable Who-I-might be.

The advantages offered by virtual immersive environments for learning and teaching are consequently akin to, and yet extend beyond, the value of more traditional role-play in classroom scenarios.  I was last year commissioned, for example, as part of the re-build of Kingston University’s Second Life presence, to create the 3D infrastructure for interviewing practice in the context of organisational behaviour (Kingston Business School), courtroom practice (School of Law), and professional practice (School of Architecture), in each case simulations entailing role-play.  In the area of language teaching, J.E. Buckingham, a graduate student at the School for International training in Vermont, draws heavily on Moran’s (2008) contention that “In many ways, learning a second language is about learning to play new roles in a second culture, even creating a second identity”:

As we know, immersion in the target culture/language is the optimal way to learn a language, and simulated realities aim to offer a more modest version of that experience.  (Godwin-Jones, 2009)
The concept is not so different from that of creating an avatar by overlaying the features of an already-known character.  We simply then place that avatar’s life into a Spanish-speaking country.  In this day and age when avatars represent us in all sorts of environments, from on-screen computer help to internet dating, the use of a virtual friendship to explore another culture is not a difficult concept for today’s student to grasp.  In fact, for those students who already have an avatar “living” in a Second Life community or a similar parallel environment it is rather the norm, and the concept of creating an imaginary character fits right in.
(Buckingham, 2009, p.14)

As Kapp and O’Driscoll point out, “The in-world role-play archetype provides a realistic environment in which two or more people act out a scenario” (p.95)

Avatar as ‘imaginary friend’: learning to live

As results from the recent poll in this blog will have confirmed, Second Life means different things to different users.  For some it is preeminently an engaging educational medium, a place to learn; for others it is “simply just fun for fun’s sake”, pure entertainment; for yet others “a great place to meet and socialise”; and for some, a spotlight on the future of human society, perhaps of the human condition.  Whatever one’s declared feelings about the platform, and however vehemently one might wish to deny one is a ‘role-player’, it’s impossible to get away from the fact that social virtual worlds such as Second Life are nevertheless fundamentally about playAt every level of activity, from customising one’s avatar’s appearance (let’s call this the ‘Barbie and Ken Syndrome’), through behaviours and animations such as dancing and flying, to building one’s dream home, one is in essence playing, enjoying the pretence that jiggling pixel prims one way is actually donning a skirt, in another way is actually driving a car or dancing a tango, in yet another way is actually building a house or furnishing a room.

The pretence is inescapable: in the very act of logging in one is entering and acknowledging a make-believe world that, as the occasional outage over the years has reminded us, exists essentially only as data stored on servers in California.  (Real life, by contrast, is of course at no risk of such outages, has no ‘Grid Status’ web site nor busy battalion of deus-ex-machina engineers endeavouring to get the real world up and running again; and whatever other pretences we might go through in real life, a skirt really is a skirt, a car really is a car, and in sharp contrast to my Fred Astaire performances in Second Life I really do have two left feet when I dance.)  We recognise play as crucially important for the verbal, social, moral, ratiocinative, and conceptual development of the child (Isenberg & Jalongo, 2006):

Make-believe play is an increasing preoccupation for a child as he grows from about two to about five.  It is a kind of play in which his construction or representation of the world might be said to take over from reality: in other words, the process of constructing what happens (and perhaps, as we have just seen, playfully exploiting the gap) gives place in this form of activity to a process of virtually making things happen, at his own choice and in accordance with his own desires.  It is an enactment of his own construction of events.  He selects from the whole of his past experience: in fact it would not be a gross distortion to assign to such play, at this stage, the role of maintaining a child’s view of the world in a condition in which he is happy to live with it.
(Britton, 1970, pp.87-88)

What we perhaps find difficult to recognise, and in adulthood far harder to acknowledge, is that imaginative play in just the way in which children engage in play, and for much the same reasons, may remain a psychological imperative throughout our entire lives.  For many this may take the form of watching movies and television dramas, or of reading novels, vicariously living out in our imaginations the challenges, dilemmas, and conflicts faced by fictional characters.  We empathise with, slip into the minds of, perhaps partially identify with, characters; we feel their spectrum of emotions, cringe at their embarrassments, agonise at their disappointments, rejoice at their successes and empathetically share their failures.  Yes, of course we also do this in real life as well: we watch unfold the dramas of our families, our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues; and yet it may be argued that it is the lifelong rehearsal of appropriate emotional, moral, and social responses learned from engaging imaginatively and emotionally with the “what-ifs” of fictions that in a significant way equips us to respond with acquired confidence to real-life situations.

Social virtual worlds, however, enable a very special kind of fiction, more akin to the imaginative play of our childhoods than to the inflexibly scripted fictions of cinema and novel: it is we who are, as we were as children, the actors, the players, the dramatis personae, freed to negotiate our own dramas.  (In a later posting I shall examine in depth the ubiquity and importance of ‘drama’ as a cultural concept in Second Life.)  It’s at this point that I therefore return to the ambivalent nature of the avatar, visually third-person yet operationally first-person, unsettlingly poised between Avatar-as-Self (associated with a predominantly augmentationist stance) and Avatar-as-Other (a predominantly immersionist stance), the umbilical cord to the keyboard in the latter case severed to the extent that, engaged as a quasi-autonomous digital being in a graphical 3D environment to which the ‘primary’ (to use Extropia’s term) has no direct access, it becomes in effect one’s ‘imaginary friend’.  Let’s recapitulate Suzanne Hall’s synopsis of Marjorie Taylor’s studies:

These friends also allow children to explore misbehavior and its consequences. “About one-third of all imaginary companions do not behave well,” Taylor says.

The literature on reputation, trust, and the guarantee of impunity afforded by the anonymity (or ‘pseudonymity) of Second Life, is of course bestrewn with tales of irresponsible and socially disruptive behaviours by ‘griefers’, others, ‘that sort’, ‘not us, not me’.  And yet it’s likely that each and every one of us will at some time in our ‘second lives’ have displayed behaviours or engaged in activities in which we would, in real life, be far less likely to engage in our face-to-face encounters with others.  Some of it may seem so ludicrously petty and inconsequential–have you ever, Ms Reader, walked the digital thoroughfares of Second Life wearing a micro-skirt and skimpy translucent top? worn body tattoos and shoulder-length hair, Mr Reader? and have you ever done so in real life?–that we’d hesitate to recognise such behaviour as in any sense ‘experimental’ or ‘role-playful’; yet clearly the choices made with respect to the appearance and conduct of our avatars are the choices made by the human being playing at the keyboard.  And the more we are able to objectify our avatar as a distinct third-person ‘he’ or ‘she’, the more emotionally comfortable we will feel at allowing the avatar, as ‘imaginary friend’, to try out alternative behaviours.  As Lisa Libby has noted:

studies have shown that if you remember an incident in the first-person, you tend to re-experience the event, how everything unfolded. You’re wrapped up in the emotions, so you don’t reflect on the event and the overall meaning.
(Lisa Libby, quoted in Jeff Grabmeier, 2005)

whereas in the third-person view we are more able to detachedly and dispassionately play with such alternatives.

Envisioning worlds: a summing up

The poet W.H. Auden long ago gave explicit recognition to the truth that

“Every human being is interested in two kinds of worlds: the Primary, everyday world which he knows through his senses, and a Secondary world or worlds which he not only can create in his imagination, but which he cannot stop himself creating.”
(W.H. Auden, 1968)

At the very core of what it means to be human is not simply the ability to envisage alternative realities, but the necessity for doing so. Our “what ifs” liberate us from blindly submitting to the raw and relentless “what is” of life, to weigh one course of action against another, to conceptualise hypothetical futures, to replay, to critically review, and to learn from our pasts; while myths and stories help us to make sense of, give structure to, give meaning to our chaotic lives as they are. The prehistoric rock paintings (arguably the very earliest virtual realities) of Lascaux and the Tassili n’Ajjer mountains, of Ndedema Gorge and Altimera, the ancient myths of our forebears, the novels we read, the movies we watch, are the alternative realities, the crucial narratives, that allow us to vicariously experience alternative lives, alternative ways of being, to enter into dialogues that, as children, would have been our dialogues with imaginary friends.

Social virtual worlds, whatever else they may be, fall squarely within that human tradition of play and imagination out of which we, in a never-ending dialectic, remake our lives day by day.  Second Life may turn out to be truly life-changing in ways we cannot yet even imagine.


Auden, W.H.  (1968).  Secondary Worlds.  London: Faber and Faber.

Britton, J.  (1970).  Language and Learning.  Harmondworth: Penguin Books.

Buckingham, J.E.  (2009).  ‘Imaginary Friends: Using Guided Imagery, Line Drawings and Webquests to Incorporate Culture into the Foreign Language Curriculum’.  School for International Training Graduate Institute, IPP Collection, Paper 480.  Accessed 25th July 2011 at:

Carey, B.  (2007).  ‘This Is Your Life (and How You Tell It)’.  The New York Times, 22nd May, 2007.  Accessed 25th July 2011 at:

Grabmeier, J.  (2005).  ‘See Yourself As Outsiders Do To Measure Progress Toward Goals, Study Says’.  Ohio State University: Research News.  Accessed 25th July 2011 at:

Hockett, C. F. and Altmann, S.  (1968).  ‘A note on design features’, in Sebeok, T. A., (ed), Animal communication; techniques of study and results of research. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Isenberg, J.P. & Jalongo, M.R.  (2005).  Creative Thinking and Arts-Based Learning Preschool Through Fourth Grade.  Columbus, Ohio : Merrill Publishing Company.

Kapp, K.M. & and O’Driscoll, A.  (2010).  Learning in 3D.  San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Libby, L.K., Eibach, R.P. & Gilovich, T.  (2005).  ‘Here’s Looking at Me: The Effect of Memory Perspective on Assessments of Personal Change.’  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 88, No.1, pp.50-62.

Moran, P. R. (2008).  Faces: Characters in Search of Authors.  Brattleboro, VT:
Pro Lingua Associates.

Taylor, M.  (2001).  Imaginary Companions and the Children who Create Them.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This entry was posted in Identity, Role-play, Transformation. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to My avatar, my ‘imaginary friend’: the importance of play in social virtual worlds

  1. Mm. I agree with your overall premise. The thing I might add is that you almost envision *too much* right now. “Life-changing” might be something as simple as not having a physical handicap, trying out a different race, or even wearing different clothes and being treated differently. We don’t necessarily need a huge reality shift to make deep, impactful introspections about ourselves.

  2. Khoisan Fisher says:

    I’d in fact had in the back of my mind, Ron, the OpenSim Aspergers’ project I’ve been managing over the past year, which really has been life-changing.

  3. Pingback: The Value of Third Person Perspective | Stepping Stones

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