The Curious Case of Racism in Second Life

[From the Pixels and Policy blog (“Uncovering the ways virtual worlds change our politics, policy, and culture”)]

10/26/2009

The Curious Case of Racism in Second Life

The standard techno-optimist argument in favor of expanding the Metaverse goes something like this: Virtual worlds hold the promise of commuication without regard for distance, physical ability, gender, or race. Every aspect of the avatar is flexible, rendering prejudice obsolete.

It appears such wishful thinking might be snagged on the heated issue of race. Pixels and Policy reports on a little-noticed study that says our racial biases are carrying over into the Metaverse.

Bringing Race Issues into the Virtual World

A research team from Northwestern University conducted a very interesting study on the biases and prejudices we carry into the virtual world, and the findings are startling. Researchers used what is called a “Door in the face” technique.

The research team asked avatars for a ridiculous favor (a two-hour photo shoot), followed by a more modest request (one photo), to judge how willing avatars were to help.

Then comes the spin: Researchers asked these favors as both black and white avatars. The results were shocking: The effect of the DITF technique was significantly reduced when the requesting avatar was dark- toned. The white avatars in the DITF experiment received about a 20 percent increase in compliance with the moderate request; the increase for the dark-toned avatars was 8 percent.

What’s interesting is that avatars were willing to help a dark-toned player in need, but in greatly reducedpercentages. Players appeared  more willing to do things for a white avatar than they were for a black avatar. On its own, this study could fall victim to any number of operational flaws: Talking to busy avatars, changes in how the question was asked, or variations the estimated time constraint of a photo shoot.

But as another series of interviews shows, the issue of racial preference in Second Life may be much more accepted and understood in-world than we think.

Being Black in Second Life

Wagner James Au devoted some time to the question of virtual race in his great book, “The Making of Second Life” (a must-read for any serious Second Life enthusiast).

Au interviewed several dark-skinned avatars in-world, including a white woman who experimented with a dark-skinned avatar only to find her social circle much reduced and friends asking when she was “going back to normal.”

The issue of race can be so uncomfortable in the virtual world that black players will play as white avatars to avoid the awkward coldness experienced by the white player mentioned above. The idea that a black woman would need to play as a member of another race merely to avoid the social awkwardness of being black in the Metaverse is disturbing.

Instead of building a virtual world where race is irrelevant, social conditioning is producing a space where those in “unfavorable” races can easily assimilate into a “favorable” skin tone.

What Can We Do About “The Norm”

What’s worst about virtual race bias isn’t that it’s done with the conscious approval of players – in most cases, players harbor no outwardly prejudiced views – but that social conditioning makes the move towards one “favorable” skin tone so automatic.

It isn’t that the caucasian (or tanned, as the case may be) skin tone is “better” than a darker tone, it’s merely that the white skin tone appears to be a “cultural norm” for Second Life players. White, then, is the default. This is why the friends of the race-shifter interviewed by Au asked, perhaps unaware of the real meaning, when she was “going back to normal.”

How many black or asian or Middle Eastern players put on white skins because they feel it’s simply easier than dealing with the potential awkwardness of playing as their real race? What can be done about a racial prejudice so ingrained in our thoughts as players and avatars that it continues without our conscious approval?

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