If you read a magazine that showed the coolest human avatars in a game or virtual world, then went online to create your own, would your appearance choices be influenced by the ones that were featured? According to recent research, if you identify yourself as black offline, you might be less likely to create a black avatar if the “cool” avatars you had seen were all white. You might even be more hesitant to tell other avatars your offline ethnicity. The Mary Sue has a good piece about the study.
We can speculate about participants’ motivations and I think this is a very limited experiment, but it leaves a lot of room for more other researchers to build upon the work. They could test participants with more self-identified races, use a magazine that doesn’t describe the test avatars as “coolest” but is more neutral about their presentation, learn more about the participants’ racial preferences, and even reverse the scenario to show all the cool ones as “avatars of color”. They could also talk to long-time SL residents who use non-white avatars. I think that a lot of people change avatar appearance as they become more comfortable in SL and make social connections. Discover Magazine’s piece about the study makes some of the same points, which were also addressed by the study’s primary author.
It seems to me that it’s easier than ever to create an avatar in SL that isn’t European-featured with light skin. There were a remarkable range of styles to suit tightly curled hair at the Hair Fair this year — everything from natural to braids and dreadlocks and relaxed. It can be a challenge to find traditional ethnic clothing, but there are modern fashions of any style you choose to wear. Skin stores offer more hues, though you still might need to tweak your facial sliders to change the features. There are even a wider variety of body types with mesh bodies/body parts, though I still find those problematic and limiting. I believe it’s crucial to welcome and enable avatars that span the breadth of human variety. You can be whomever you want online, but you shouldn’t feel that your offline self is inferior to the representation on screen
In the physical world, my skin is just a tad darker than translucent. I’ve got straight light brown hair and green eyes. It’s easy to create an avatar that matches my coloration, if not my facial or body structure, in most games and worlds with character customization. I’ve tried on darker skins but they make me feel like an impostor. I gave that a lot of thought: why am I ok with representing myself as a statuesque ice-blonde but not a woman of color, though I am neither of those in the offline world? For me, the answer seems to come down to one of culture. I know what it’s like to be white and blonde. I can’t realistically imagine what it is like to be a woman of color in a world of white privilege. My black female friends are a diverse group; what we share is that we all worked in a male-dominated tech world, where our gender similarity bound us together more than our skin color could separate us, but I still don’t know what it is like to live their lives.
Note that I’ve avoided the word race here, unlike the articles I’ve linked to and the study itself. That is a conscious choice (and makes writing quite difficult). Race is problematic even when people self-identify as members of a racial group, and “black” and “white” are really fuzzy concepts. The official position of the American Association of Anthropologists, of which I’m a member, is that dividing people into racial groups based on physical characteristics is erroneous. The borderlines between races are different around the world and have been used as a way to separate acceptable from unacceptable, privilege from discrimination. Race as a concept is historic, social, cultural, and political, and it’s not a good way to describe physical variation. For more on this perspective, visit the AAA’s RACE project.