The Psychology of Immersive Environments Technology Working Group (PIE.TWG) is responsible for 1) advancing basic and applied research on the psychology of immersive environments, 2) promoting immersive experiences and programs that are psychologically beneficial, 3) defining best practices for the early identification and assistance of at-risk users of immersive environments and the treatment of individuals currently manifesting symptoms of immersive disorder, and 4) collecting and disseminating scientific and professional information on the psychology of immersive environments. The broad term “immersive environments” includes but is not limited to 3D virtual worlds, simulations, video games, and full, augmented and mixed reality (FAM).
The PIE.TWG is open all members of the Immersive Education Initiative whose background and skills are in one or more of the following categories:
- Psychological Researchers/Academics with experience in the design, implementation, and analysis of publication-quality psychological research.
- Mental Health Professionals with experience in providing psychological counseling or therapy for any problems linked to excessive technology use and/or an interest in investigating the therapeutic use of immersive experiences.
- Participants with extensive experience in using virtual worlds, simulators, or immersive games and the capacity to thoughtfully discuss the psychology of these immersive environments.
In the ideal case, the PIE.TWG will be composed of multiple representatives from each category in order to ensure that the perspectives of the scientific, professional, and experienced-user communities are reflected in its activities and work products.
FOCUS/TOPICS OF INTEREST
A. The Psychological Implications of Immersive Environments
The development of interactive, 3D graphical environments is a technical advance with major implications for human psychology, particularly in the areas of social interaction and personality and identity.
1. The Impact of Immersive Environments on Social Interaction
The rise of immersive social spaces has produced a significant increase in the power and realism of remote interactions. While text-based remote interactions have been available since the introduction of written letters centuries ago, and telephonic and video-based mediators of distance interaction have been used for years, the introduction of three-dimensional social spaces has added a powerful experience of embodiment and presence to remote interactions. For the first time, individuals have a sense of “being inside,” “inhabiting,” or “residing within” the remote environment rather than being outside of it, thus intensifying their psychological experience.
While the senses of taste, smell, and touch still remain exclusive to proximate, face-to-face (FTF) interaction, the addition of a compelling bodily sense to remote interaction constitutes a significant narrowing of the distinction between proximate/physical and distant/virtual social interaction. Ongoing progress in the graphical, sensory, gestural/movement, and expressive realism of immersive environments will continue to lessen the experiential divide between real and virtual environments and create a parallel, competing, context for human interaction (Dionisio, Burns, & Gilbert, 2012). 
2. The Impact of Immersive Environments on Personality and Identity
Users of immersive environments are able to create avatars (3D digital representations of the self) whose physical and/or psychological qualities are very different from their human form. This capacity has major implications for the nature of personality and identity.
In real life, an individual's identity is closely linked to physical characteristics such as age, sex, race/ethnicity, and health as well as his or her inborn temperament and personality traits. However, the ability for participants in immersive environments to customize their avatar (or avatars) into almost any form of imagined self involves an unprecedented separation between the body, consciousness, and identity. In the future, as individuals spend more time in immersive environments and grow increasingly accustomed to creating and using diverse digital representations, it is possible that the concept of the self or personality will be viewed more as an organization of multiple diverse identities rather than as a more stable, unitary entity (Gilbert, Foss, & Murphy, 2011). 
B. Understanding the Psychology of Immersive Environments
Systematic research in three broad areas of investigation can help provide a more detailed understanding of the psychology of immersive environments. Each of these areas – (1) assessing the psychological characteristics and behaviors of active users of immersive environments; (2) determining similarities and differences between physical world and virtual world psychology; and (3) evaluating the impact of virtual experiences on real-life behavior and psychology – is briefly discussed below. An additional section highlights the importance of (4) identifying best practices for conducting scientifically sound, ethical research on the psychology of immersive environments.
1. Assessing User Characteristics and Activities
While some data are available that provide general descriptions of active users or “residents” of immersive environments (e.g., their ages and nationalities), there is a lack of information on the psychological and behavioral characteristics of these participants. Very little is known about their real-life social relationships, family histories, personality features, or mental health status. There is also an absence of systematic studies on typical patterns of social behavior and activities that occur within the virtual world itself. In sum, very little is known about the psychological qualities of active users of immersive environments and what their lives within virtual worlds entail.
Given this void in objective data, current perceptions of virtual worlds and their active inhabitants are largely based upon popular press accounts of the oddest and most extreme processes within 3D virtual environments or are a matter of unanchored personal opinion. As the number of avatars worldwide continues to grow, policy makers, community leaders, parents, and teachers will increasingly be called upon to respond to the presence of 3D graphical environments and the availability of immersive experiences. Systematic investigations of the physical-world characteristics and typical in-world activities of active users of 3D graphical environments can provide realistic data to underpin these responses (see Bell, Castronova, & Wagner, 2009 – one of the few large-scale surveys of virtual world users).
2. Determining Similarities and Differences between Physical and Virtual World Psychology
A basic question related to the psychology of immersive environments is whether the principles of psychology that apply in the physical world also operate in the virtual world (see call for “mapping principles” by Williams, 2010). Preliminary findings indicate that there are both common and distinct psychological processes between the physical and virtual realms. On one hand, physical-world findings related to the dynamics of personal space and non-verbal behavior (Bailenson, Blascovich, Beall, & Loomis, 2003)  and obedience to authority have been replicated in the virtual world (Slater, Antley, Davison et al., 2006). In contrast, there is evidence that the pace in which relationships form and dissolve in virtual environments is significantly greater than in the physical world (Gilbert, Murphy, & Avalos, 2011) and that social anxiety and inhibition is less prevalent in the virtual realm (Hoyt, Blascovich & Swift, 2003).
Going forward, an extensive set of studies can be undertaken across many areas of psychology to derive a fuller understanding of which psychological processes show consistency or variability across physical and immersive, graphical environments.
3. Evaluating the Impact of Virtual Experiences on Real-Life Behavior and Psychology
The key applied question related to the psychology of immersive environments is whether experiences in 3D virtual settings have the capacity to influence behavior and subjective experience in the physical world in either positive or undesirable ways.
With respect to positive effects, a number of early studies have demonstrated that virtual experiences can have beneficial consequences for physical-world behavior and subjective experience. For example, individuals who controlled avatars that exercised in the virtual realm increased the frequency of their real life workouts in the week following the research (Fox & Bailenson, 2009) . Similarly, individuals who controlled avatars that reflected aged versions of their real selves tended to make more conservative decisions in a post-experiment survey on financial management (Yee & Bailenson, 2006) . A wealth of studies, across many domains of behavior and experience, are possible to assess the extent to which virtual experiences can be a constructive influence on real life functioning and to determine the durability of these effects over time. These include the use of immersive environments as a context to deliver counseling, psychotherapy, and other mental health services.
It is also important to assess potential negative effects of immersive experiences. Because of the power and compelling nature of 3D virtual environments, concerns have been expressed regarding its addictive potential and possible adverse consequences of excessive use such as social isolation, impaired job performance and relationship problems. To date, however, few systematic studies have been conducted to determine the nature and extent of psycho-behavioral disturbances related to excessive use of immersive environments (Gilbert, Murphy, & McNally, 2011) . If negative impacts are found to be prevalent, developing prevention and treatment programs for problematic usage of immersive environments, and assessing their efficacy, will be important.
4. Identifying Best Practices for Research on the Psychology of Immersive Environments
Research in each of the content areas can be enhanced by identifying best practices for conducing scientifically sound, ethical studies on the psychology of immersive environments. To what extent do ethical guidelines related to obtaining informed consent and ensuring confidentiality that have been established in physical-world research with human subjects also apply to conducting research with avatars in immersive environments? Similarly, are the methods for establishing the reliability and validity of data, or the recommended research designs and types of statistical analyses, the same or different within the physical and virtual realms? In addition, methodological and ethical issues specific to virtual environments such as the use of AI/software-controlled avatars to conduct research in virtual worlds – including automated experiments and interviews/surveys, are important topics to consider (Hasler, Tuchman, & Friedman, submitted;  Yee & Bailenson, 2008).
- Promote basic and applied research to increase knowledge and understanding of the psychology of immersive environments.
- Define best practices for conducting scientifically sound, ethical research on the psychology of immersive environments.
- Identify immersive experiences and programs that are psychologically beneficial.
- Define best practices for the delivery of mental health services within immersive environments.
- Define best practices for the early identification and assistance of at-risk users of immersive environments and the treatment of individuals currently manifesting symptoms of immersive disorder.
- Maintain an up-to-date bibliography of research studies and professional papers on the psychology of immersive environments.
- Promote networking and community building among psychological researchers and mental health practitioners in 3D virtual experience and active users of immersive environments.
- Identify and apply for collaborative funding opportunies to advance PIE.TWG activities and projects
CRITERIA FOR SUCCESS
- Initiate research studies by PIE.TWG members (including multi-site, collaborative efforts) on the psychology of immersive environments.
- Prepare and publish best practices for conducting research on the psychology of immersive environments.
- Prepare and publish documents summarizing immersive environments and programs in current use that are psychologically beneficial.
- Prepare and publish best practices for delivering mental health services within immersive environments.
- Prepare and publish best practices for the early detection and assistance of at-risk users of immersive environments and the treatment of individuals manifesting symptoms of immersive disorder.
- Develop and maintain an up-to-date digital library of scientific and professional information related to the psychology of immersive environments.
- Establish an active community of PIE researchers, mental health practitioners, and virtual world and video game users via face-to-face (FTF) and virtual meetings.
1. Assessing User Characteristics and Activities
Scenario 1: Acquiring Data on the Psychology of Virtual World Participants
A college professor teaching a basic accounting class has set up a clothing store in a virtual world that is being run by student-created avatars. The teacher’s intent in developing this immersive exercise is to teach students basic accounting and business practices in a manner that more closely approximates physical-world experiences than traditional methods of instruction in this subject area. While the course is underway, the teacher learns that several parents have contacted the school administration and expressed concerns that having students create and operate avatars was encouraging aberrant behavior. Several of the parents mentioned that they had read reports of participants in virtual worlds engaging in strange and objectionable behavior and had heard that these worlds are largely populated by socially isolated and emotionally unstable individuals. The parents insist that the professor use healthier and more appropriate ways to teach their children, while the professor states that the parent’s views are alarmist and unfounded and objects to any restriction on academic freedom. The school administration seeks to investigate the issue further and finds the resources published on the PIE.TWG website. In order to obtain an expert opinion on the current state of online virtual world activities, the school administration contacts selected PIE.TWG members for personal statements.
Scenario 2: Identifying At-Risk Users of Immersive Environments
As 3D graphical environments become increasingly vivid and compelling, some individuals may become involved in these worlds in a manner that is compulsive and psychologically harmful. Others may enjoy using immersive environments without being consumed by these experiences or suffering any negative consequences. The question is: Are there psychological variables (e.g. family history of addiction, current or historical personality problems, the presence of co-morbid compulsive or addictive behaviors) or physiological indicators found during early use (measures of arousal, dopamine levels) that are associated with constructive or detrimental usage? The identification of psychological and/or physiological predictors of susceptibility to later symptoms of immersive disorder can promote efforts at prevention and early intervention. The PIE.TWG will collect and disseminate information that helps to identify at-risk users, and methods for treatment of immersive disorders.
2. Determining Similarities and Differences between Physical and Virtual World Psychology
Scenario 3: Assessing Physiological Responses to Immersive Experiences
A researcher conducts several studies to explore whether physiological responses to experiences within immersive environments are similar or different to physical reactions to real-life events. To the extent that the form and magnitude of physiological responses to experiences in virtual domains mirror those found in physical settings, he believes it would be difficult to dismiss immersive experiences as game-like and psychologically inconsequential. In one study he startles an avatar by arranging for a large object to fall from space and crash next to it and assesses whether the heart rate and galvanic skin response of the human driver indicates an increase in physiological arousal. In another study the investigator has an avatar experience social criticism or rejection from other avatars to determine whether the human driver produces higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol as occurs following social rejection within real-life interactions. The PIE.TWG will contribute to understanding the relationship between physical and virtual experience through its research activities and its digital bibliography of scientific findings.
Scenario 4: Identifying Transfer Rules of Personality Traits and Social Norms from Physical into Virtual Environments
The motivation of many users of online virtual environments is to act out different sides of their personality and identity; for example, in online role-playing games. Some even claim that they are better able to express their “real self” in online interactions than in FTF interactions in the physical world. The extent to which participants show similar personality traits, social norms and preferences in their online and “offline” behavior is still widely unknown. This also has consequences for research as we cannot always conclude from observations of a person’s in-world behavior how he or she may act in an equivalent situation in the physical world. Likewise, social norms that have been established and are culturally driven in physical environments may not necessarily transfer into the virtual environment. Instead, online communities often develop their own unique expectations regarding appropriate behavior as well as different consequences and sanctions if their norms are violated. In order to address this issue PIE.TWG researchers aim to identify transfer rules (or “mapping principles”) that underlie the similarities and differences in the display of personality, identity and social behavior in online and “offline” interactions.
3. Evaluating the Impact of Virtual Experiences on Real-Life Behavior and Psychology
Scenario 5: Reducing Stereotyping and Intolerance through Diversity Simulations
A high school teacher working within a racially-mixed school wants to challenge the stereotypic and intolerant views held by many of her students toward peers outside their racial group. She has each student in her class open a virtual world account, create a race-discrepant avatar, and spend several hours a week interacting within the virtual world with this avatar. Students are asked to reflect upon these experiences in a journal. At the end of the assignment, she has students meet in small groups to discuss the diversity simulation exercise and assess its impact on attitudes and feelings toward real-life members of other racial groups. The PIE.TWG will promote the use of psychologically beneficial applications of immersive environments by maintaining a database of programs and activities that seek to use 3D virtual environments to promote positive changes in behavior, feelings and attitudes.
Scenario 6: Conducting Graded-Exposure Treatments of Anxiety-Disorders
A therapist specializing in anxiety disorders such as phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder often uses graded-exposure techniques in which clients are progressively exposed and desensitized to escalating levels of an anxiety-producing stimulus or context (e.g., heights, social speaking, etc.). While the therapist realizes that real-life or “in-vivo” exposure is more powerful than imaginary exposure (evoking mental images of the feared stimulus) the former is too time consuming and costly for most clients. As an alternative, the therapist sets up a virtual environment where he can simulate progressive exposure to vivid, 3D graphical representations of the source of the client’s fears and reduce their anxious response to the stimulus over time. The PIE.TWG brings together mental health practitioners who are interested in such therapeutic scenarios in immersive environments to share their knowledge and experiences and develop best practices for conducting cybertherapy in 3D virtual settings.
4. Identifying Best Practices for Research on the Psychology of Immersive Experience
Scenario 7: Establishing Ethical Guidelines
A researcher is preparing to conduct a study in a virtual world using avatars as participants and is looking for information on the best way to have the avatar’s human driver provide informed consent for participating in the study. The researcher also wonders how he can be certain that the human operator has not already completed the study using another avatar, which would create duplicate cases or non-independent subjects. Is it sufficient to have the human driver indicate that they have never completed the study before? Is it ethical to determine the IP number of the computer being used by the human driver to see if it is a duplicate of a computer used by a previous subject? The PIE.TWG drafts ethical guidelines on best practices for conducting psychological research in immersive environments, and makes them available to the research community.
Scenario 8: Establishing Confidence in the Validity of Data
A researcher is excited by the presence of tens of millions of avatars in the virtual world and the prospect of accessing a global pool of subjects for his work rather than relying upon students enrolled in introductory psychology classes. However, he is uncertain about the scientific validity of data collected via avatar subjects. He has read accounts of “cyber-disinhibition” and wonders if this phenomenon will result in data that is less subject to social-desirability effects (and therefore have increased validity), or whether it will have an arbitrary and capricious character that will reduce its accuracy and scientific value. He wonders if any prior work has been done to assess the scientific validity of data obtained in immersive environments. In order to answer his question he accesses the digital library of scientific and professional papers on the psychology of immersive environments provided by the PIE.TWG.
PIE.TWG teleconference and/or virtual world meetings are held once a month, with additional teleconferences or in-world meetings arranged at the discretion of the group.
Face-to-face (FTF) meetings are one to three-day sessions held approximately twice a year, with additional meetings arranged at the discretion of the group. To maximize working relationships between the PIE.TWG and relevant standards bodies and vendor organizations, FTF meetings may be held in conjunction with industry events, standards meetings, or on location at member or collaborator organizations. All FTF meetings are announced through the group’s mailing list and website.
The proceedings of this Technology Working Group are confidential and restricted to members of this group. As an open-standards organization, and in recognition of the need for ongoing accountability to the general public, MediaGrid.org will periodically publish a public summary of all technical decisions (together with rationales for these decisions) made by this group since the last public summary. Deliverables produced by this group will be provided to experts and collaborators for review prior to being furnished to the general public.
INTERNAL CONFIDENTIAL: Under final review by author(s).
References and Notes
FORMATTING: Reference list format is under active change.
Conversion to JiED format in progress.
- ^Dionisio, J., Burns, W., & Gilbert, R. (2012). 3D Virtual worlds and the Metaverse: Current status and future possibilities. American Computing Surveys.
- ^Gilbert, R., Foss, J., & Murphy, N. (2011). Multiple Personality Order: Physical and
personality characteristics of the self, primary avatar, and alt. In A. Peachey & M. Childs, Eds., Reinventing ourselves: Contemporary concepts of identity in
online virtual worlds, Springer Series in Immersive Environments, 213-234. London: Springer Publishing. DOI: 10.1007/978-0-85729-361-9-11.
- ^Bell, M. W., Castronova, E., & Wagner, G. G. (2009). Surveying the virtual world: A large scale survey in Second Life using the Virtual Data Collection Interface (VDCI). German Council for Social and Economic Data (RatSWD) Research Notes No. 40. Retrieved 2012/04/30 from http://ssrn.com/abstract=1480254.
- ^Williams, D. (2010). The mapping principle, and a research framework for virtual worlds. Communication Theory, 20, 451-470.
- ^Bailenson, J. N., Blascovich, J., Beall, A. C., & Loomis, J. M. (2003). Interpersonal distance in immersive virtual environments. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 819-833.
- ^Slater, M., Antley A., Davison A., Swapp D., Guger C., et al. (2006). A virtual reprise of the Stanley Milgram Obedience Experiments. PLoS ONE, 1(1): e39. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0000039
- ^Gilbert, R., Murphy, N., & Avalos, M. (2011). Realism, idealization, and potential negative impact of 3D virtual relationships. Computers in Human Behavior. DOI: 10.1016/j.chb.2011.05.011.
- ^Hoyt, C., Blascovich, J., & Swift, K. (2003). Social inhibition in immersive virtual environments. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 12, 183-196.
- ^Fox, J., & Bailenson, J. N. (2009). Virtual self-modeling: The effects of vicarious reinforcement and identification on exercise behaviors. Media Psychology, 12, 1-25.
- ^Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. N. (2006). Walk a mile in digital shoes: The impact of embodied perspective-taking on the reduction of negative stereotyping in immersive virtual environments. In Proceedings of PRESENCE 2006: The 9th Annual International Workshop on Presence, August 24-26, Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
- ^Gilbert, R., Murphy, N., & McNally, T. (2011). Addiction to the 3-dimensional Internet: Estimated prevalence and relationship to real world addictions. Addiction Research and Theory, 19, 380-390.
- ^Hasler, B. S., Tuchman, P., & Friedman, D. A. (submitted). Virtual research assistants: Replacing human interviewers by automated avatars in virtual worlds. Manuscript submitted for publication.
- ^Yee, N., & Bailenson, J. N. (2008). A method for longitudinal behavioral data collection in Second Life. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 17, 594-596.
FORMATTING: Reference list is under active change.
Conversion to JiED format in progress.