Q&A: Stanford's Byron Reeves on avatars in the workplace

Communication professor discusses why avatars are likely to be as much of a hit on the job as they are at the box office.

Since its opening last month, Avatar has raked in more than $1.3 billion in ticket sales and made millions of moviegoers consider what it might be like to go to work and control a body that is not one's own.

The film's special effects may portray a world that's light-years ahead of today's technology, but avatars are nothing new. They've taken front-and-center in the video game industry, and they've been gaining popularity in the workplace. During the last three years, thousands of employees at companies like IBM, Cisco, SAP and Boeing have been using avatars to interact with colleagues and customers around the world.

Stanford's Byron Reeves has been paying close attention to the use of avatars and gaming technology on the job. In his new book, Total Engagement: Using Games and Virtual Worlds to Change the Way People Work and Businesses Compete, Reeves and co-author J. Leighton Read consider tomorrow's workplace and what it will take to create the best employees and most competitive businesses.

Reeves, the Paul C. Edwards Professor of Communication and co-founder of the H-STAR Institute, spoke with the Stanford News Service about avatars at work, the ethical questions they raise and the "secret sauce" that makes them so appealing.


L.A. Cicero Professor Byron Reeves says part of the appeal for avatars in the workplace is that they're practical for how work is distributed across the physical world today.

Professor Byron Reeves says part of the appeal for avatars in the workplace is that they're practical for how work is distributed across the physical world today.

What are the advantages of using avatars in the workplace?

First of all, they're practical, especially when you consider how work today is distributed among teams all over the physical world. You can go to a meeting as an avatar across continents and time zones. But the second reason is maybe the secret sauce for the avatars: They're a lot of fun to manipulate. The notion of self-representation in media is incredibly interesting. Not only do I get to be on the outside of the screen controlling what's on the screen, but I get to jump into the screen and have a presence there.

For a lot of jobs right now, work sucks. It's boring. It's repetitive. It's dull. The tools that we've been giving people to do their jobs are not particularly engaging even though we know engagement at work is necessary and valuable for job productivity and satisfaction. If people start using avatars to do their jobs, they'll be much more engaged. Avatars are one of 10 different ingredients in great games that we talk about in our book that will have a big impact on the future of work.

Given the popularity of the movie Avatar, do you expect businesses will be more open to having their employees experiment with virtual alter egos?

There are some allergies to self-representation and a game-like feel for work in a serious business. I think the movie will do a lot to lower those allergies. The character of Jake Sully was able to go to work as an avatar. He got to do all the things he was meant to do. That notion of doing something serious, but with an element of gaming and playful representation, is what's interesting to many companies right now.


How much training is needed to use and manipulate avatars?

The training can vary substantially. But it's usually nothing more than the same training that would be necessary for a videoconferencing system. You have to log on to the software, you have to get an avatar, you may spend some time customizing and personalizing it, then you jump into a virtual world. Within minutes, you're manipulating your presence with a group of others in a virtual environment, scooting around left to right, up and down and walking around. It's a very quick learning curve. And if you've played a game outside of work using an avatar – and millions of new workers have – then you pretty much know what to do right off the bat.


What are the ethical issues that need to be addressed when avatars interact?

Avatars aren't good or bad. They're powerful. You could probably do as many bad things with your avatar as you could do in real life. But you have to also think about all the things you can do in a virtual world that you can't do in real life. For example, I can get rid of any physical disabilities I have. If you're using a wheelchair to get around right now, you don't have to in a virtual world. Is that OK? Is it OK to be taller and more attractive? Is it OK to make my face look a little bit like your face? Studies show that you're more likely to like me if we look alike, but is it fair to take advantage of that with an avatar? These are all questions that will be figured out as all of this develops.


So will using avatars at work redefine social codes, or just reinforce the rules of real life in a virtual world?

It's a little bit of both. You're reinforcing the rules that work the same in real life as they do in virtual life: Be nice, and do unto other avatars as you'd like them to do unto you. But the versatility and novelty of the technology will give us surprises too. It will be fun to watch it develop.


How do you monitor and control the actions of avatars and their operators at work?

Part of the attraction to the generation that's spending time in virtual worlds and playing games with avatars is a certain sense of anarchy. But when you talk about transporting all the entertainment sensibilities to the world of work, you're obligated to think of the values by which you'll allow that to happen. It's tempting to want to be an advocate of only the possibilities, but it's important to note that there are downsides. It may be so engaging that you're spending more time working than you're getting paid for. Is that fair? And what happens if your repetitive stress injury gets worse because you're operating your avatar so much? There's a lot that could go wrong, much of which we can plan for and design around.


It seems impossible to operate an avatar without feeling like you're playing a game. How does that translate in a work environment, where playing a game could have a huge consequence?

When you add the game element, you add a big sense of collaboration. You feel like you're playing with a team. To win in these games, you've got to encourage your colleagues. You can't win by yourself. Three years ago, the notion of having fun at work wasn't widely accepted. You could get fired for having fun at work. But fun is not the opposite of work. Fun comes from engagement and it's the reason you work well. There are times in everyone's day when you notice three hours went by really quickly. What were you doing then? Chances are you were really engaged in whatever it was. Time flew, and you didn't even notice.

Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224, agorlick@stanford.edu