The Curious Case of Racism in Second Life

Erika_in_midnight_skin 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 reduced percentages. 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."


              A Variety of Skins  in Second Life?

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?

14 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Racism in Second Life”

  1. This was a pretty ridiculous study… not in a bad way… just… ridiculous.
    First off: how they ask is what matters, not how they look.
    Secondly: anyone who’s a seasoned SLer isn’t really even paying attention to avatar look anymore. In fact, I’d tend to think most chat and negotiations take place in IM. If someone were asking me for help or to hire me, I would receive an IM.
    Third: They didn’t record who accepted the offer to help. Because, clearly only idiots accepted the 2 hour photo shoot… and idiots… well, they don’t think straight.
    … but hey.. this is just me. I’m willing to work with any skin color avatar, and beyond that, I’ll work with any animal, any robot, any tiny, any anything…. what’s the difference?!?!
    But, I refuse to work with the stupid idiots.

  2. Why not look into avatar height? Honestly, I rarely see people give AV skin color a second look (pun intended). (=_=)
    But, I often hear of people showing up at clubs, stores, and such and either getting shouted out of the place or flat out banned over their height. Regardless of being a child, fairie, doll, elf, or imp avatar. (=_=)
    Mind you, I ain’t been hit by that. My avatar is 5″1′ and 80% of my time is in an adult sim… Where people recognise scale and tower of terror avatars are seen as they are. (^_^)y

  3. I, too, question the significance of this study (perhaps more accurately, its interpretation). Not only is the methodology confusing to the lay reader, it addresses only one relatively minor aspect of avatar appearance out of the many possible. Want to experience “racism” first-hand in Second Life? Try being a furry.

  4. I think that this is a serious issue in SL, I think it is wrong to dismiss it. Although in ‘experiments’ of this type, it is difficult to control all the variables, the fact is that the same person was asking the questions and getting a significantly different response depending on the skin colour of their avatar. There are comparatively few black avatars, hardly any decent black skins and rarely do you see black hair for sale. We have to ask why are black people ‘choosing’ or being forced to choose white skins. If skin colour did not matter then sl would be multi-coloured and it very noticeably is not. Racism is rife whether we like it or not and pretending it is not only serves to perpetuate both the myth and the racism.

  5. Interesting piece. It’s not particularly surprising that there would be some DITF associated with having a dark-skinned avatar, for several reasons. Virtual worlds in the West still lie on the far side of the digital divide — accessing them requires a very strong PC and solid broadband, and the fact that they run on downloadable clients limits access from schools, libraries, and other places that make PCs more generally available, but don’t permit download and installation of software. They’re also not generally available on mobile, which is the internet terminal of choice for much of the world. As a result, just like the internet in the early 90s, the active population of VWs is still predominately privileged and presumably disproportionately white, reflecting patterns of privilege and exclusion that exist elsewhere in our society.
    Adding to this is the practical difficulty of creating an ‘avatar of color’ from open-market parts, when the market favors a particular restrictive norm (i.e., infinite variations on the theme of 23-year-old-caucasoid-supermodel). But this difficulty is also experienced by folks who want to present themselves, for example, as being middle-aged or older, or in less than perfect shape, or otherwise pay some regard to real diversity of appearance.
    World2Worlds is actually in the process of assembling an avatar library that honors the whole scope of human phenotypes and ages, and a similar affordance is promised by Linden Lab to users of their behind-the-firewall SL platform, due into Beta this week.

  6. I don’t claim to have an academically exhaustive study of this topic, but my students must change race each semester (or gender: their call):
    Findings from last year: “noob” status led to more insults and snubs than did race or gender. That said, my students are in a writing class and learning to make claims based upon a variety of data, including personal experience.
    I’m glad to see this post and will share it with this term’s class, as they are soon to embark on the experiment again.
    I do wonder about Lalo’s point–“Race” can mean “nonhuman” in virtual worlds, and Furries have trouble because of stereotypes linked to griefing and sex.

  7. DD, don’t blast the study–go ahead and read it before passing judgment. I see your point, though…and I agree broadly that “Secondly: anyone who’s a seasoned SLer isn’t really even paying attention to avatar look anymore.”
    So I want to read the entire study, academic geek that I am.

  8. Important note: the study was actually conducted in, which skews extremely young (mostly teens), and is relatively small, so is not necessarily a great data point in relation to Second Life.

  9. Ahhhhh racism, that dirty little secret that we want to sweep under the rug and pretend doesn’t exist in the ‘new mellineum’. It is alive and well out there in the real world. Only now-a-days it is couched in politically correct rhetoric. If there is racism in the virtual world, then it is because the virtual self is an extension to the real self. There is a school of thought that says that drinking too much does not change who a person is, it can just amplify the negative traits that are already there. I suspect that the anonymity of avatars can and does do the same.

  10. @Ignatius . yeah, I mean I read the study… and yeah, it’s not that I’m blasting it…
    It’s just that I don’t think “race” is the right word per say. I would think furries or tinies have it rougher than blacks or whites.
    But, I have an interesting question: Does anyone choose to be human, and of a different race? I wonder if there are white people being black people inworld, or black being white, or asian being of another persuasion.
    Can I just call the study racist?

  11. @Doubledown, thanks! Now I must rush off and read the study, because I do want to know more about whites portraying other races. I chose a dark-skinned Mediterranean skin for my avatar (same as its owner). For a while, with earlier versions of the SL client, he got confused for a black man by friends who had lousy graphics cards that rendered the world very dark :)
    I gave him dreadlocks but he dresses “steampunk” most of the time. He has never, in 1000s of interactions, been a victim of overt racism. But that is one data point.

  12. I have been playing different “races” since I joined SL.
    I started out as a tall Nordic blonde, then changed to a slighly shorter African (based on a live model, born in Ghana), then changed to a distinctly Asiatic look (again baced on a live mode, this one born in Korea). At present I’m a mixture between the blonde and the Asian…
    And I can’t say that I’ve noticed any difference at all, except possibly that the African got propositioned more often, but this is likely to correlate better with bust size than skin colour.

  13. i have many skins im not going to tell you if im black or white blue grey what ever in rl dosent matter its a place where if i want to be black for a day i can and if i want to be white so be it im there and trust me ive never had any race issues in the game over wearing a black skin and i have a fue i also have white skins, furry avies, mech, lord only knows what you could call some of the other stuff i wear and out of all that the only one ive ever been messed with or told to leave a place over is my furry avies dont look at color look at if you have fur or not cause thats where the probs come into play

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