The effectiveness of using simulations in virtual worlds to impact social change.

The effectiveness of using simulations in virtual worlds to impact social change.

A Review of the Literature

Salie Davis

Advanced Design Seminar


Dr. Nicola Marea Allain

October 28, 2019


Articles in academic journals are explored to determine the effectiveness of simulations and role play in virtual world settings in their ability to impact changes in awareness and empathy towards differences in ability. A current study where the author was able to identify the impact a virtual world simulation had in changing attitudes and perceptions using virtual world role play whereas the participants took on the role of an avatar to empathize with the personal and emotional experiences of that avatar was conducted by Tiffany, and Hoglund in 2016. Other than this specific study, the search parameters of social change, simulation, and virtual world, in academic journals in the field of education did not yield results specifically related to increasing awareness and empathy in the participant to encourage real-world social change

Research has been conducted on similar subjects, such as the general effectiveness and impact on learning using virtual world simulations. Searching those terms in the One Search ESC library database resulted in 2,287 hits in the educational category for academic journals. Research also supports that personality is impacted by the virtual world and that the virtual world experiences impact real-life changes ( McLeod, P. L., Liu, Y.-C., & Axline, J. E, 2014). This literature review seeks to evaluate whether available research supports the goal of determining if the outcomes of learning in virtual environments through simulations have a lasting impact on personality changes, specific to an increase in empathy toward individuals with different abilities.

Research selection and definitions:

Academic articles were researched that address the social interactions, associated benefits and risks, and the community and personality development as it relates to virtual worlds. Research has shown that learning is a social process (Veletsianos and Navarrete, 2012). This research is essential in understanding the underpinnings of the educational uses and effectiveness of virtual worlds in learning outcomes (Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R.2009, Kramer, S. 2010, Lerner, J. E. 2016, Merchant, Z., Goetz, E. T., Cifuentes, L., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., & Davis, T. J. 2014, Mon, L. 2010). Research specifically studying online virtual worlds and the theory that positive social change and an increase in empathy and awareness can be accomplished using simulations and role play in immersive virtual world environments has been conducted (Tiffany, and Hoglund, 2016). Simulations are intended to help the user experience through immersive technology an event, a place, or a role that they are not able to in a real-world scenario. (Nelson, 2013, Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R., 2009). Historical understanding is also essential therefor research was included to give a basis of understanding concerning the overall effectiveness of teaching and learning in virtual worlds. For the use of this literature review “virtual world” can be defined as the definition of an online virtual world is a 3D multi-user environment with user-generated content. It is also defined as an online, computer based, and browser based virtual reality platform (Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. 2010).

Historical research:

According to Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt, & Davis, immersive virtual reality has been in existence for almost sixty years beginning in the1960’s. (2014). The use of online virtual worlds increased in the beginning of the 21st century with private and educational institutions contributing to and creating virtual interactions for science-based simulations, such as virtual dissection and virtual museum simulations (Merchant, Goetz, Cifuentes, Keeney-Kennicutt, & Davis, 2014). Social change through the use of virtual worlds to impact personality through avatar identity has only recently been studied (Barton-Arwood, S., Lunsford, L., & Suddeth, S. W. 2016, Kuznetcova, I., Teeple, J., & Glassman, M. 2018, Tiffany, J., & Hoglund, B. 2016, Triberti, S., Durosini, I., Aschieri, F., Villani, D., & Riva, G. 2017).

Historical studies have shown that the use of simulations in real-world applications is very effective in changing attitudes and increasing awareness and empathy toward people with disabilities. (Goddard, Jordan, 1998). These studies however were not based on virtual world environments.

Online virtual worlds have historically based their foundations on “…interactive entertainment products and services” (Linden Research, Inc., 2017, para 2). This has influenced the overall public perception of virtual worlds as an adult themed virtual playground (Carver, L. B. 2016).  Educational virtual worlds are usually privatized by educational institutions. Historically they have been limited to concrete concepts and facts rather than challenging social perceptions and attitudes. (Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R. 2009, Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. 2010, Lerner, J. E. 2016, Michele D. Dickey. 2011, Roussou, M. 2002). In the history of virtual worlds however, they have long been used for simulations and role playing in educational and learning goals (Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R. 2009, Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. 2010, Lerner, J. E. 2016).


Research articles explore the design of virtual worlds for various uses of educational applications and techniques. (Carver, L. B. 2016, Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R. 2009, Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. 2010, Kramer, S. 2010) Narrowing the research specifically to simulations in virtual worlds and social change in One Search ESC library database using the key word of simulation, virtual world, and social change resulted in 536 hits. Narrowed down to the field of education brought the search results down to 87. Limiting this further to academic journals revealed 41 potential articles on these topics, of these only 2 were directly relevant to this research topic, addressing social change in perceptions, personality, or empathy through the use of simulations in virtual worlds. (Tzemopoulos, A. 2014, Zielke, M., Roome, T., & Krueger, A. 2009). These studies were done on the impact of personality and real-world changes in these online communities whereas the participant has direct influence over their avatar choice and interactions. In the role play and simulation study for social education Tiffany and Hogland discuss the impact that can be accomplished by preset avatar identities and activities not directly controlled by the participant.

In virtual worlds, as an avatar, people can explore different environments and roles. (Kuznetcova, I., Teeple, J., & Glassman, M. 2018, Tiffany, J., & Hoglund, B. 2016, Kuznetcova, I., Teeple, J., & Glassman, M. 2018, Lerner, J. E. 2016, Merchant, Z., Goetz, E. T., Cifuentes, L., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., & Davis, T. J. 2014, Michele D. Dickey. 2011, Mon, L. 2010, Roussou, M. 2002, Tiffany, J., & Hoglund, B.2016). Avatar identity studies, have also been conducted, however research has not been focused on the potential influence on real world changes in understanding through simulations. Instead these studies have focused on avatar development and the development of a virtual community online (Triberti, S., Durosini, I., Aschieri, F., Villani, D., & Riva, G. 2017, Tzemopoulos, A. 2014).  Groups of professionals and individuals network within these online virtual worlds creating virtual communities that offer social support and resources.

According to research learning based simulations have been used for combined synchronous and asynchronous educational goals. (Gregory, Sue, 2012) A virtual world simulation is beneficial because of the “unique affordances that it offers in enhancing learners’ cognitive skills” (Merchant et al., 2014, para. 6). Participants use avatar identity to connect themselves or who they wish to be, with the virtual world and virtual community(Kuznetcova, I., Teeple, J., & Glassman, M. 2018, McLeod, P. L., Liu, Y.-C., & Axline, J. E. 2014, Triberti, S., Durosini, I., Aschieri, F., Villani, D., & Riva, G. 2017, Tzemopoulos, A. 2014). This emotional connection to avatar identity is useful in allowing participants to experience avatar identities that they would not otherwise experience in the virtual world and to transfer that emotional awareness and knowledge gained by the experience into real world applications and empathy (Tiffany, and Hoglund, 2016). This is also because research supports the effectiveness of learning in immersive virtual world simulations in general “The contemporary notion of learning environments recognizes that meaningful, active learning takes place in complex, multi-model environments in which the learner plays an active role in constructing knowledge” (Dickey, 2011, p.2).

The research explored was based on standard educational pedagogues and transferred to the virtual world concept through generalization. “Established adult learning theories have been transferred to teaching in the VW where normal pedagogical practices have continued. No new theories have emerged and researchers have been adapting current theories to fit into the framework of their teaching scenarios.”(Lerner, 2012, p.3) Generalizing research that is non-specific has disadvantages, however may be necessary given the limited amount of current specific research. This is due to the fact that drawing conclusions from limited sources holds the same disadvantage (Hew and Cheung, 2010).

According to recent studies that were more specific towards the ability of virtual world simulations to change perceptions and attitudes in real world applications, “Students indicated that they increased their own capacity to understand, appreciate, and relate to people different from themselves” (Tiffany, and Hoglund , 2016 p.1) Other research indicated that the success of influence is directly related to the personality of the participant (Triberti, S., Durosini, I., Aschieri, F., Villani, D., & Riva, G. 2017). Students who are open to change and engaged in the learning process responded more positively to virtual world role play of more complex social scenarios. “Research has indicated that technology can increase student motivation, attitude, engagement and self-confidence, while improving organization and study skills” (Carver, 2016, p.110). This open attitude to new experience is essential. According to research, simulations have also been more successful to learning due to the level of safety and anonymity that the virtual world offers. “Simulations are often used for learning in a VW so that students can experience doing things that are impossible to do in a real world.” (Lerner, 2012, p.3).

Studies have also shown that communication is essential in teaching and learning (Hew & Cheung, 2010, Veletsianos, G. & Navarrete, C. C. 2012).  The virtual world is an immersive environment for role play and simulation due to its various platforms for communication. “Communication in virtual world can take both verbal and nonverbal forms” (Hew & Cheung, 2010, p. 36). Auditory input and output, in-world animations and written text chat are the primary forms of real time person to person communication in world, while text on signs, note cards, audio and visual input through video, music, websites and links, and visual display of objects are communications used on an individual basis and not dependent on live person to person communication (Hew & Cheung, 2010).This helps expand the use of role play and simulation design beyond social interaction, community involvement, or networking. This also complicates conclusions based on research that was conducted using virtual community interaction and person to person (or avatar to avatar) relationships since it is based on the individual’s personal reflections ((Hew and Cheung, 2010, Tiffany, J., & Hoglund, B. 2016).

Aside from community and social interaction, research conducted showed that “transformative learning whereby students reflect and then act on this reflection” (Lerner, 2012, p 7) was successful in increasing the potential for learning. This supports the possibility that independent roleplay and simulations may be effective in achieving learning goals. According to Mcleod, arousal of emotion is needed to establish empathy. The visual build and simulation environment increases immersion thus increasing the emotional impact on the participant. In addition, the personal identity created by the relationship between the participant and their avatar brings in an additional emotional factor to the experience (Kuznetcova, I., Teeple, J., & Glassman, M. 2018). Openness to new experiences has also been identified as essential in initiating change in behaviors (McLeod, P. L., Liu, Y.-C., & Axline, J. E., 2014). Studies suggest that the effectiveness of virtual worlds is directly related to the personality traits of participants, and in how engaged they are in the experience, more than the presentation of the environment or information (Barton-Arwood, S., Lunsford, L., & Suddeth, S. W. 2016, Carver, L. B. 2016 Roussou, M. 2002).

One article addressed increasing empathy through a virtual game (Sterkenburg, P. S., & Vacaru, V. S. 2018). Several articles address virtual simulations and their benefits (Dunleavy, M., Dede, C., & Mitchell, R. 2009, Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S.,2010 Lerner, J. E. 2016). The challenge is finding research to support the impact on the individual participants social perceptions, awareness and empathy as it transfers from virtual world experiences to real world social change beyond the research done by Tiffany & Hoglund in 2016.

Social and emotional learning can be assessed through retrospective and participant reporting data. The research I reviewed concerning social change and increased empathy was based on participant surveys which can weaken the conclusions derived by the study. “A general problem of studies based on self-reported data is that participants usually have correct notions about socially desirable answers” (Hew and Cheung, 2010, p 44) Other that the study done by Tiffany & Hogland in 2016, research on avatar identity has been conducted only in so much as the participants chosen avatar identity influences real world perceptions (Kuznetcova, I., Teeple, J., & Glassman, M. 2018,  except for the research conducted by Tiffany & Hoglund in 2016, Triberti, S., Durosini, I., Aschieri, F., Villani, D., & Riva, G. 2017, Tzemopoulos, A. 2014, Zielke, M., Roome, T., & Krueger, A. 2009).


Virtual worlds are often used for simulations and experiential spaces however based on search results, most research is in the media arts and health and environment disciplines. (Barton-Arwood, S., Lunsford, L., & Suddeth, S. W. 2016, Goddard L, & Jordan L. 1998, McLeod, P. L., Liu, Y.-C., & Axline, J. E. 2014, Smith, M. J. 2016, Sterkenburg, P. S., & Vacaru, V. S. 2018). Appling these outcomes to the field of education and social change context weakens the conclusion since specific research using the search parameters of simulation, virtual world, and social change in the field of education were limited.

Research articles that address the topic in part, adds to the overall body of knowledge about learning in virtual world simulations, however only two articles specifically addressed outcomes based on changes in awareness, or empathy needed to impact individual personality or social change (Sterkenburg, P. S., & Vacaru, V. S. 2018, Tiffany, and Hoglund, 2016).

More studies need to be completed on whether the avatar identity used in simulations or role play that has not been developed by the participant can have the same impact on perceptions of the participants in real world applications such as the one done by Tiffany & Hoglund in 2016. In addition, more studies need to be done on the impact of role playing in virtual worlds on the perceptions of participants. Even if studies show that immersive virtual world simulations can change perceptions, studies also need to be done on how changes in perception impacts behavior.


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