Research & Insights

When Worlds Collide: The Power of Virtual World Play on Real World Conservation

What happens in virtual worlds does not always stay there, and researchers say that might be a good thing.

According to Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn and J. Adam Avant from the University of Georgia and Jesse Fox and Katherine R. Dale from The Ohio State University, test participants who spent time in a virtual forest where they learned about environmentally friendly practices demonstrated they might be likely to adopt that behavior in their everyday life.

The study, published in the August 2015 issue of the Journal of Communication, involved 114 participants.

First, some 114 participants completed an online survey designed to measure their sense that their actions can have an impact on environmental problems. A week later, participants were invited into a lab where they were exposed to information about the impacts of the paper industry on forests.

They were then asked to engage with a virtual forest using either a device similar to the controller found in a Nintendo Wii or Microsoft Kinect. Participants listened to chirping birds and looked at the sky and trees around them. After a few minutes, they were asked to interact with the forest. Some participants used the controller to cut down a virtual tree, while others worked a virtual pump, which watered a growing seed.

A second set of participants completed the same virtual tasks, but rather than using the controller, worked a standard mouse. A third group of participants didn’t interact with the virtual forest at all.

Following the virtual interaction, participants answered a set of follow-up questions regarding their sense of environmental efficacy and behaviors. For instance, participants were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “My individual actions would improve the quality of the environment if I were to buy and use recycled paper products.”

The participants were then subject to a final test. A researcher “accidentally” spilled a cup of water in front of the participant, and handed him/her a stack of paper napkins with which to clean up. The number of paper napkins used by the participant was measured.

The researchers found that participants who virtually engaged with the forest used 25% less paper to clean up the spill than participants who hadn’t interacted with the forest. They also expressed being more likely to engage in pro-environmental behaviors in the future. The effects were stronger for participants who used the interactive controller as opposed to the standard mouse.

Additionally, the way in which the participant interacted with the forest mattered, too. “[P]resenting the environmental benefit of paper conservation in the form of a vivid virtual experience of growing a tree helped increase environmental response efficacy, which in turn led to greater intentions to engage in environmental behaviors compared to the loss framed experience of cutting down a virtual tree,” the researchers noted.

“Considering that our preliminary results suggest that even a brief framed experience…can be powerful enough to persist and change actual behavior,” the authors explain, “the outlook of such an application is encouraging.”

Journal of Communication

Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn and J. Adam Avant, University of Georgia
Jesse Fox and Katherine R. Dale, The Ohio State University

Posted: August 31, 2015
Tagged as: