Interacting online with people from throughout the world is a daily occurrence for millions of Internet users, yet most do it with little perspective on the virtual identity they are projecting. Now a multiplayer online game created by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology is offering insight to virtual community designers and members.
Called "The Turing Game," its object is to differentiate imposters from players telling the truth. Games can cover aspects of gender, age, race, religion, nationality, native region or any other cultural marker of the users' choice. Differentiating imposters by the content and style of their online written communication will reveal insights into how various cultural markers affect a person's virtual identity, researchers said.
"Rather than just studying identity online, why not create a way for everyone -- netizens and scholars alike -- to learn more about it through personal experience?" said Joshua Berman, a Georgia Tech College of Computing doctoral student who developed The Turing Game with his advisor Dr. Amy Bruckman. "And why not try to make it fun as well as intellectually engaging?"
Bruckman compares The Turing Game to the old game show called "To Tell the Truth." "You have a panel of people with all but one of them pretending to be something they are not," she explained. "The audience asks questions via the computer, trying to determine which panelist is telling the truth."
The Turing Game is based on the "Turing Test," named after British mathematician Alan M. Turing. Its intention is to see if a person could distinguish the differences between men and women without being able to see them -- basically doing it with written responses.
The game is a research tool for Berman's dissertation, which will explore identity and culture in online communities from two complementary perspectives. "I hope to help virtual community members understand the actions which create their public identities, and to help virtual community designers be aware of the cultural and social affordances of the societies they " Berman said.
Virtual communities, which are growing in popularity, are creating new educational and cultural opportunities that would not otherwise be possible. For example, U.S. students can regularly meet online with students across the world to play educational games and share project information.
"That's a powerful learning experience," Bruckman said. "The community support found in a virtual community can provide students with a lot of help."
But while virtual community support is a powerful tool, it is not fulfilling its potential effectiveness, Bruckman said. Community designers and members must first have a better understanding of virtual identity.
"Identity in online environments is still poorly understood," Berman said. "As online culture becomes an increasing part of everyday culture, it becomes more and more important for us to understand how it affects who we are. Our research aims to expand the body of knowledge about identity and culture online. We hope to expand that understanding not just for scholars, but for everyone who plays The Turing Game." Researchers hope to answer what they call some crucial questions for virtual community designers. "Is it possible to create a genderless classroom? A raceless courtroom? A rich environment where a user can be not just a pseudonym, but a person with a full history of culturally bound " they ask on their Web site. "The Turing Game is a participatory collaborative learning experience to help us understand these phenomena."
Online players have been trying out The Turing Game recently with questions designed to reveal a panelist's gender. Here's a sample Q & A from people trying to portray women: "What's your best beauty tip? Nicky says: Mix your own concealer with Oxy10. It's a better color than the one that comes out of the bottle. Rhonda says: Always blot your lipstick with a piece of tissue." Who was really a woman? Nicky.
Here's a sample Q & A from people trying to portray men: "What was the worst thing about your last significant other? Bob responds: She wanted me to hang out with her all the time. David says: She always had a comment for everything. Joe says: She was the 'clingy' type. I felt like I had to check in every hour." Who was really a man? David.
The Turing Game is now available to the public free of charge via an Internet-based virtual community at http://www.cc.gatech.edu/elc/turing/. It runs on any computer with Windows 95, 98 or NT 4.0. You must register to play online at any of the scheduled game times.
Eventually as interest increases, players will be able to log on and play at any time. Interest seems high; more than 1,200 people -- ranging in age from 18 to 89 -- in six continents registered to participate within the first month of the game's posting on the Web on July 21, 1999.
"Participants report being both amused and enlightened, seeing themselves and others in new ways," Berman said.
Prospective players are warned that what they say is immediately posted on the Web site -- people are identified by their online names -- and may be used in Berman's study.
The Turing Game is supported by a grant from Microsoft Research and by the National Science Foundation.
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