Just about any gamer is familiar with avatars in virtual realities, as these entities stand in for us in those unreal worlds. In some cases these avatars are static, for the purposes of the environment, but in some realities our avatars can be made to look however we want. Now researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia have found this ability could be used to improve one's physical health, and perhaps reduce prejudice.
Some 279 users of the Second Life community were surveyed as part of this study, and that survey included questions concerning their online engagement and offline health. They found that for those who considered their avatars an extension of themselves, a strong sense of self-presence, the researchers could predict how the avatar would impact their physical reality. These impacts could just be improving how one feels about themself, but could potentially be harnessed to lead to changing one's behavior. For example, an avatar in better physical condition than the user could encourage them to achieve that physical condition in the real world, provided they have a strong sense of self-presence online.
Potentially the researchers could see this being used to counter prejudices in society by enabling people to identify with something different from themselves through their avatar. The researchers have already expressed an interest in doing such a study.