From World of Warcraft to Weight Loss: How Virtual Reality Can Change Behavior

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Sbarro Institute at Temple University

Most studies involving video games and avatars have been connected with weight gain, but seeing our virtual selves could also melt pounds away — if the avatar adopts the right healthy habits.

The appeal of virtual-reality games lies in their power to simulate realities that we create ourselves — from the mundane familiarity of our own existence to the stimulating excitement of a fantasy world where anything goes. And the appeal of simulated worlds is driving researchers to investigate how these virtual experiences are changing or shaping our behaviors. Does connecting with a virtual version of yourself alter your perception of who you are and what you are capable of doing? And if that’s the case, could such virtual realities become a new tool for influencing social behaviors like relationships, or even lifestyle choices such as exercising, smoking or eating?

According to scientists at the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), the popularity of interactive digital games serves as evidence that people respond to avatars and virtual-reality settings — and that these avatars may be an untapped resource for influencing behavior. “This digital ‘gold rush’ has increased public awareness, driven advances in underlying enabling technologies, and ignited social changes that have gone well beyond the early expectations of behavioral-health scientists,” the authors wrote in a 2011 review of how virtual reality could impact obesity and diabetes, among other health-related conditions.

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In the latest study to support this idea, researchers from the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services reported in the Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology that watching avatars complete healthy behaviors helped a group of overweight participants to lose weight. The trial involved 128 women who had tried to lose weight for a year, none of whom had any experience using virtual reality. The participants created avatars to represent themselves — they could choose skin color and body shape — and the scientists then burned DVDs in which these avatars appeared in four different environments, such as walking on a treadmill, choosing smaller portions during a meal or shopping in a grocery store. After four weeks, the women who watched their avatars exercise once a week for 15 minutes had lost an average of 3.5 lb.

That compares well with most weight-loss programs, so the researchers believe the findings support the idea that avatars are a promising way to help people to change their behaviors.

“What the avatar does is it enables someone to watch the skills being performed before they go out and try them out themselves. We think this works because observational learning is a very powerful tool for weight loss or any behavioral change,” says study author Melissa Napolitano, an associate professor in the department of prevention and community health at George Washington University. “Secondly, I think that the idea that the avatar, who looks like the person, can really help the person identify with the avatar so that they think that the skill is something they can do on their own.”

Other research supports this idea that simulating healthy behaviors might be a powerful way to motivate people to become more physically active or to try more nutritious meals. One recent trial found that people who watched an avatar that looked like themselves running on a treadmill were more likely to exercise the following day compared with people who watched an avatar resembling someone else.

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NapolitanoFig4 (2)

Sbarro Institute at Temple University

And weight loss isn’t the only health issue to benefit from the use of virtual reality. Some researchers have simulated classrooms with virtual teachers for attention-deficit/hyperactivity-disorder patients to study how the condition affects attention and how the classroom setting might be modified to help these students feel less distracted. Other scientists have used virtual reality and avatars to teach children with autism how to safely navigate their school and home environments, instructing them to look both ways before crossing the street, for example.

These efforts are immediately appealing to parents and increasingly to doctors as well. “This view makes intuitive sense and hits close to home when parents notice their children exhibiting Herculean focus when playing a video game on their Xbox while teachers’ reports indicate chronic inattention and distractibility in the classroom,” the scientists from ICT write.

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And health-related games from brands like Wii and other so-called kinetic games that blend the virtual and real settings to require more activity from the user also bolster this avatar-based trend. Taking a cue from these platforms, the researchers from ICT have even tried to make games like World of Warcraft more active, by transferring keyboard actions into body movements. Watch how it works in the video below (the technical explanation comes in at 1:15):


Of course, the power of virtual reality lies in the activities that people are simulating. And it’s not surprising that negative behaviors might be just as easy to pick up as positive ones from spending time in a virtual world, as the controversy over the violence in some virtual-reality video games has suggested. So Napolitano says she and her colleagues plan to continue researching the use of avatars in clinical settings to better understand how people interact with their mini-me’s and how the experience can be guided toward positive outcomes.

“A lot of my work is to try to figure out how to take evidence-based techniques out of the clinic. Using a technique like this, we can take programs to people where they are geographically and also motivationally,” she says. “It’s important to find ways to engage people into treatment so that someone can be interested over time in trying to practice these new skills.” Exercising and losing weight involve a lot of work, but if a simulated version of you can do it, maybe you can too.