Image: Kumawar.com
Image: Kumawar.com

When you hear about World of Warcraft, what do you think of? Probably not the video game’s effect on international politics and national security. But what if I were to tell you that games such as World of Warcraft which are typically labeled as “escapist fantasies” by media such as the New York Times and Business Insider actually could have real consequences offline?

In December, the New York Times published a story about the NSA’s spying in World of Warcraft. Then, there was the more recent news that U.S. intelligence agencies were concerned that a digital avatar of Osama Bin Laden could be used as a recruitment tool for terrorist groups. The idea seemed laughable: what could be more unrealistic than a virtual world? Why is the government wasting its resources looking into video game avatars when there are real problems to be dealt with?

An article by Nick Yee argues that government interest in avatars is not naive, but actually smart – after all, these video games are novel communication platforms. Avatars are used to communicate, create social norms, and even persuade. So what makes one avatar more persuasive than another?

In comes the Proteus effect, which Yee researches at length in his new book, The Proteus Paradox. According to Yee, studies have repeatedly shown that rather than allowing players to reinvent themselves, avatars shape how gamers think and act. Avatars are particularly persuasive when they resemble the player – after all, we tend to agree with people that look like us.

The fact that the faces of avatars are infinitely malleable explain why a Bin Laden avatar could be worrisome: because users see their own versions of reality within virtual worlds, the face of a Bin Laden avatar can be individually tailored to each gamer, making the avatar more likely to mold how we think and behave.

The media representation of these online games distracts us from the fact that these virtual worlds can be highly effective and far-reaching communication platforms; however, it isn’t distracting intelligence agencies. In fact, the only thing more surprising than agencies such as the NSA poking around in virtual worlds would be if they weren’t paying attention to them at all.

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