Friday, September 05, 2014

Diversity of Online Avatars

I have spent a decent amount of time discussing gender in gaming, both in the games and the gamers that play them. On occasion I will mention religion and race, but rarely are these topics openly discussed as often as gender. When it comes to video games, religion is typically not at the fore-front of the design. Sometimes you'll find hidden symbols or subtext in quests that relate to Christianity in some form or another (it is still the largest religion in the world, after all), but expect mostly mythology to make up a landscape. We like to keep fantasy as fantasy in our games. The question of one skin's color is a bit trickier. We know someone of every color, creed, sex, religion, etc. etc. etc. plays video games in some form or another. But rarely do we see someone who is not white or Asian decent taking on a lead role. Those of another color are most likely to be spotted in fighting games, ala Street Fighter, as optional characters, but they rarely to hold down a lead role. The first game that comes to mind is Resident Evil 5 in the form of Sheva, who is seem more as an assistant to the lead male Chris Redfield, and less of a lead character. How is this affecting gamers? Are we being limited by our creative options by only focusing on white men as lead characters?

That is what Jong-Eun Roselyn Lee of Ohio State University set to find out in studying diversity amongst virtual avatars by utilizing the SecondLife platform. The study involved taking 56 participants, half of the group defined their ethnicity as white, the other half as black. Lee had the participants read a fictional SecondLife magazine article profiling the 8 "coolest" SL avatars. At random, people read the "all white" avatars or the "mix race" avatar stories. 2 groups. 2 stories. With me so far?

After that, Lee had the participants create their own avatars in SecondLife and then rate their willingness to reveal their real racial identity in the virtual world via the appearance of their new avatar. When comparing the two groups, those who were white were largely unaffected by either the low-diversity or high-diversity scenario, which could indicate that they really did not care the color of the skin of the character (even though they all chose white avatars). Black participants were less willing to choose a non-white race in the low-diversity scenario and created whiter avatars.

Some things to keep in mind:

These people did not actually play through SecondLife. They read a fictional article and created their characters. That's it. If they spent the time being immersed in the worlds, the results could be completely different. Unlike other games, SecondLife has no limits. You can be an 8 foot Liger with purple and green polkadot fur. Unlike other games, SecondLife really does allow you to be whatever you want to be and having been a participant on and off, I don't see more "white" avatars compared to others. It's a good mixture of everything and anything.

It also only focused on one game with a very small group of people. If this were done on a large scale of 1,000 people, the results would be more conclusive and unique by comparison to the small group. The games being played would also have to be adjusted. Pretty much every online game allows you to customize your avatar in a myriad of ways, from race to the shape of your eyebrows. And what about games like World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy 14 where you can be a different being (like an elf or an orc)? How does race factor into those results?

The results are slanted to focus on the experience of the black participants in the low-diversity group. Reading through the published text, Lee doesn't pay attention to the white or black groups that had the high-diversity SL story. It's almost as though they have been tossed aside, and that's probably because their results didn't match what Lee wanted to show -- that race does matter in online gaming and can affect the avatar's real-world counterparts. It could be that the other white and black groups had positive experiences and were not afraid to create characters of different ethnicity. While it is a concern to not see as much in the way of options for our heroes and heroines, focusing on one aspect of the research does not make for a non-biased study. We need to full results in order to draw up a conclusion.

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