Virtual Worlds and Their Carryovers into Reality

Jorge Peña, an assistant professor of communication, has recently been teaming up with researchers across disciplines to observe the impact that virtual experiences, which includes playing video games, can have on people in the real world.

Here is Peña discussing some of his recent work and what they tell us about opportunities for the future.

What projects are you currently working on?virtual reality

I’m interested in how virtual experiences can change people’s attitudes and behaviors. We recently did a study in which we manipulated the bodyweight of a video game avatar to see if it changed how much physical activity our participants showed while playing a tennis video game.

More recently we manipulated the race of the avatar, which capitalizes on existing stereotypes about athletes and race. That way we could explore how changing the race of one’s avatar affected people’s attitudes and behaviors while playing a sports video game.

What motivated you to pursue these projects?

My parents imported and sold video games in Chile in the '90s. I probably had more access to them than other kids at the time. It’s a technology I always connected with.

When I began in the field, most of the research was examining the negative effects of video games, but I knew there were other interesting social effects left unexplored. Now I look at them as a tool for different types of training outcomes, both positive and negative.

What is most surprising about what you are learning?

We need to understand more about how virtual technology affects us, both while we are online as well as its carryovers into reality. If it happens in the video game, does it stay there?

The downstream effect of virtual experiences is an important question. If we know more about this, we could use this as a way to allow people to achieve their goals through game-based training.

What are opportunities for interdisciplinary work in your field?

Much of this work requires interdisciplinary teams. Computer scientists build the worlds, but the work also includes researchers from communication, information science, computer science, psychology and education. 

What other UC Davis researcher’s work are you excited about?

I am very interested in work by Michael Neff in computer science. For one of his projects he is mapping human gestures that express personality—virtual, non-verbal behaviors—in a virtual character and seeing whether people will decode those gestures accurately. This is an important question because it will allow researchers and game designers to more effectively create virtual characters imbued with social features. Neff’s work can also clarify whether people effectively perceive virtual characters as effective communicators of human emotions and intentions just based on their gestures.

— Alex Russell