Incidental bias is still offensive

03 Apr

Recently I became a volunteer tester for a new game*. In this system, the default avatar is non-human and apparently without gender. The company currently provides thirteen additional pre-built complete human avatars: seven male, six female, with some diversity of appearance. You could think of it like the array of mesh avatars for new users in Second Life:


In the other system, each avatar has a small paragraph of description and backstory. Though they aren’t intended to be roleplayed in that way, someone took the time to invent personalities and characteristics for these thirteen avatars. There are quite a few errors in spelling and grammar and the writing is terrible. The lack of quality reinforces the fact that these avatars and their descriptions are not the core business of the company. However, the content is public and directly associated with the company’s name (“created by companyname” is on each listing).

So, how does this connect to the title of this post?

First, there are some uncomfortable racial descriptions in the content. The one avatar that looks Asian is described as “cunning” — a bit close to the stereotype of the inscrutable Asian — and of course he practices martial arts. The black male avatar “has flavor”; in context this indicates he has a sense of style, but the shift of language from the other descriptions is unpleasant. It’s like describing a few white men as handsome and then the black one as fly.

Then there’s the misogyny, both blatant and subtle. When you read the description “organic, farm-raised”, do you think of chicken? Cows? No, silly! That’s a woman. None of the male characters are described in terms of family life, but the description for one female avatar strangely says that “she’d be an exceptional mother of five, still ready to bear more.” Earthy and maternal women are terrific, but descriptions that make them sound like livestock are not.

You can see more bias in the groupings below. I took the words used to describe each avatar — leaving out direct references to hobbies and professions, sticking to personality and appearance — pulled them into a list with the others, and alphabetized. I’ve altered them a little to make the lists more syntactically consistent (writing “put” as “puts”, for example), but not to change the content.

Words used in female descriptions: BFF, charming, courteous, cute, doll, down to earth, fills your heart, friendly, incredible beauty, intelligent, kind, lights up your life, lovely, (will) make you fall in love with life, organic, (has) perpetually perfect eye makeup, quirky, rare bird, shy (briefly), studious, sweet, (has) tenacity

Words used in male descriptions: all-around exceptional, always growing, biggest softy, built of steel, casual, cocky, confident, cool, cool-headed, (has) courage, ever-new, extra supportive, handsome, (has) muscle, kind (3 times), living proof (of how to get a great six-pack), looks soft, makes hard decisions fast, marvelous, masculine marvel, mean when mad, means business, (has) no time for jerking around, perfect blue eyes, puts life on the line everyday, quick-witted, respects authority, sharp, smooth talking, thoughtful, tough as nails, wavy hair, (has a) work ethic, works hard everyday

The male descriptions, while over-the-top, show some variety. The female words could be used to describe a single manic pixie dream girl. Heck, some of the descriptions aren’t even about the woman, they’re about the observer (fills your heart, lights up your life, will make you fall in love with life). I get sick of people pointing out “the male gaze”, but that’s a textbook example.

There’s an easy fix for the offensive avatar descriptions: they can be removed. If text is necessary, it would make more sense (for search purposes) to describe hair color, body type, and clothing. There really isn’t an excuse to leave them online as they are.

Look, in the grand scheme of things, these avatar descriptions aren’t a big deal. I know that. They might have been dashed off by an intern and not reviewed, but they are sloppy and insulting and bear the company’s name. The company is also focusing their priorities on users without disabilities but with significant tech budgets; they’re not specifically excluding others, but seem to consider accessibility someone else’s problem for the future. Taken together, these make the company seem privileged and arrogant, backward-thinking instead of the visionaries they want to be.

* I struggled with how to present this topic and still protect the company I’m writing about. Some of you will know immediately; please leave the name out of any comments. I have neither an obligation to them nor an ax to grind. I’d like to see them succeed, which is why I mentioned this issue in a relevant thread on their forums and allowed a day for the descriptions to be cleaned up before I blogged. They have not been, as of now.

So, I’ve changed a few details about the company and product, but not about the problematic content. I could have skipped this topic altogether, but I think that with all the discussions around misogyny in the tech industry, it’s valid to call out examples like this and it’s important to talk about them.


Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Gender & Sexuality, Side Topics


Tags: , , , ,

3 responses to “Incidental bias is still offensive

  1. Bird on a Cyber Twig

    April 4, 2015 at 10:29 am

    I immediately noticed the descriptions you’re discussing here, and they really are in need of some thoughtful revisions.. And while I’m all for narratives that offer such environments a more personified quality, when its not done well (such as in *this* case), it can really backfire imho. Just couldn’t bring myself to embody the cornfed free range organically cheerful, despite the initial look being one of the more appealing options to me. I wonder if theyd take volunteers to rewrite those..

    • Kay

      April 4, 2015 at 12:25 pm

      I posted in a forum where one of the staff was offering to rewrite marketplace listings for users, suggesting that they start with their own. Currently I’ve got that organic avatar because I chose it from the dropdown before reading the description, but I’m thinking of choosing the display name “Free Range” to hammer home the point a bit more.


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