Virtually Bad: A Study on Virtual Agents that Physically Threaten Human Beings

Tibor Bosse, T. Hartmann, R.A.M. Blankendaal, Nienke Dokter, M. Otte, L.F. Goedschalk

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This paper introduces the concept of “virtual bad guys”: intelligent virtual agents that take a negative or even aggressive stance towards the user. Although they pave the way to various interesting applications, it is hard to create virtual bad guys that are taken seriously by the user, since they are typically unable to apply serious sanctions. To address this issue, this study experimentally investigated the effect of “consequential” agents that are able to physically threaten their human interlocutors. A consequential agent was developed by equipping users with a (non-functioning) device, through which they were made to believe the agent could mildly shock them. Effects on participants’ levels of anxiety and (physiological and self-reported) stress were measured, and the role of presence and perceived believability of the virtual agent was assessed. The consequential agent triggered a stronger physiological stress response than the non-consequential agent, whereas self-reported levels of anxiety and stress did not significantly differ. Furthermore, while presence and believability were substantially associated with users’ stress response, both states did not mediate or explain the effect of a consequential vs. non-consequential agent on stress, as they did not significantly differ between conditions. Implications of these findings and suggestions for follow-up studies on “virtual bad guys” are discussed.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAAMAS 2018
Subtitle of host publicationProceedings of the 17th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems
PublisherACM Press
ChapterSession 30
Number of pages9
ISBN (Print)9781450356497
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2018
EventAAMAS 2018 Conference : July 10-15, 2018 Stockholm - Stockholm, Sweden
Duration: 10 Jul 201815 Jul 2018

Publication series

NameAAMAS Conference proceedings
ISSN (Print)2523-5699


ConferenceAAMAS 2018 Conference : July 10-15, 2018 Stockholm
Internet address


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