Proxemic Violations in Virtual Environments

Michael Anderson

proxemics Cartoon

Image 1 from: http://language-and-culture.neddanison.com

For this blog assignment, I chose a peer-reviewed study on proxemics represented inside of a virtual environment.  The study did an in-depth discussion of the study of social spaces which are known as proxemics. It was noted in the article that many cultures have defined space as a cultural learning.  It was noted cultures in South America, Latin Countries, Arabic countries, and southern European cultures are high contact cultures, where personal space is notably smaller. The United States and Western European countries are considered medium to high contact, while Asian are low contact cultures. The basis of this study was to find out if there were a way to analyze intercultural interaction to see if there is personal space, and if some sort of equalization or balancing of personal space via Virtual Environments. This has been notoriously difficult to test due to different cultures acclimatizing to the culture they are present in. Hence, an American in China would adopt the local proxemic standards of the country.  For the experiment, they signed up computer science and engineering students to participate in a virtual environment where they had to interact for a semester.  The experiment had the students select basic avatars, with only slight differentiation between male and female. Customization was possible, but not saved, so the vast majority of the participants used the standard avatar.

OWLAvatar

Image 2: Standard Avatar from Open Wonderland (OWL) http://owf1.virtualnorthstar.org

The students were placed into multicultural groups and observed. It was noticed that the cultural norms applied when the students were speaking their native language.  When combined in other groups, those that had to switch to a different language tended to adopt the standard proxemics of that language. The standard language tended to be English in this case, so the resulting spacial orientation was that of a medium-high contact.  They did find definitive evidence that proxemics do exist inside virtual worlds. There was also a partial confirmation of multi-cultural interaction causing an equalizing action, but the authors stated that much more information is needed to see if virtual environments reflected enough of the real world to be viable.

The conclusions reached by the authors of this paper seem to work out well with what was taught in our class. I myself participated in a virtual game world for many years. In the game, keeping your distance was still an accepted practice, unless the circumstances required a difference. It was a universal truth that you could annoy someone in-game by standing too close. There were many people who enjoyed making people uncomfortable by constantly standing right in front of another person without an inch to spare. If the individual was unknown, there was always in my experience a reaction. Either the person offended would leave, log off, or make a comment. As a culture, we have decided what distance makes us comfortable. Breaking those norms will almost always result in some reaction. Since virtual worlds are supposed to transport us into the medium, it would stand to reason that our cultural personas would be part of that.  I feel that the study was a valid interpretation of a virtual world. Culturally speaking, few people completely eliminate who they are when they enter one of these worlds.

Works Cited

Hasler, Béatrice S., and Doron A. Friedman. “Sociocultural Conventions In Avatar-Mediated Nonverbal   Communication: A Cross-Cultural Analysis Of Virtual Proxemics.” Journal Of Intercultural Communication Research 41.3 (2012): 238-259. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 4 Oct. 2013.

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