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With persistent worlds comes persistent racism

James Egan

The promise of what virtual spaces can bring us is significant -- erasing geographic limitations on interaction with others while fostering an exchange of cultures, beliefs, and languages. To this high-minded end, millions of dollars have been spent and many thousands of hours of work have been invested into creating rich graphical settings coupled with immersive environmental soundscapes. Crisp digital communication at its finest, right?

Much like the promise of the the eradication of artificial barriers to meaningful communication through the Internet, virtual worlds and online spaces in general have fallen short of expectations. It's generally not the fault of the companies or the service providers though. The fault lies with us, the users.

The reality is that many such opportunities are squandered when you encounter some of your 'new friends' in games and virtual worlds. Suddenly, it seems: You're a whore. Your mom leads a questionable lifestyle when the sun goes down, and your new friend has all the details because he was there. The list goes on. Fair enough... the cracking voice and the perceived waft of Clearasil and Cheetos makes it pretty clear this is just some kid trying to provoke a response. Mute. Ignore. Rinse and repeat. It's not a big deal.

But some escalate it, slinging whatever ethnic epithet their addled little brains can come up with. Still, they're not saying any of this because they really believe it, right? It's easy to dismiss these occasional biased outbursts as John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory in action: Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Fuckwad. We tend to assume that most of these people don't actually harbor this deep-seated hatred of mothers, homosexuals, and especially those of differing religion and race. But have you ever wondered if they really do?

Researchers at Northwestern University might have the answer to that one. Funded in part by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship award, they conducted a study into how real-life social influences carry over into virtual interactions. The study took place within the virtual world of There, and employed two types of social manipulation. Both approaches involved asking an individual in There for a favor. The "foot in the door" approach (FITD) entailed asking someone for a small favor, typically resulting in the favor being granted and the granter being praised, thus more obliged to help again. The second method was less subtle. Called the "door in the face" approach (DITF), a favor requiring great time and effort to fulfill is asked of a subject. Although most subjects refuse the big favor, they are more compliant to fulfill a second, easier request. Key to DITF is that the subject views the researcher as someone responsible and credible.

With this set of methods established, the researchers then added racial perceptions into the mix. Their avatars were either very light-skinned, or very dark-skinned, and proceeded to ask 416 There users for favors entailing taking screenshots. FITD requests were simple, and largely successful in getting follow-up favors to be performed, with 50-75 percent increased cooperation.

DITF requests were more involved, requiring hours of possible effort of a There user. Initial requests, predictably, were turned down but second (lesser) requests saw an 80 percent acceptance rate... but only if the avatar asking happened to be white. "If that avatar was black, the response dropped to 60 percent, which was statistically indistinguishable from the control," stated John Timmer, who wrote an analysis of the Northwestern study for ars technica.

Timmer further clarified by saying: "Since the DITF method depends on subjects' perception of the one doing the asking, the obvious conclusion is that black avatars are viewed as less appealing than white ones. The virtual world not only recapitulates social manipulation, but also social problems. The judgment directed towards the avatar's color is even more surprising, given that allows its users to change their avatar's appearance instantly."

While it's not clear whether the research subjects judged black avatars on the basis of the individual behind the keyboard actually being black in real life, there's certainly enough doubt cast to further future studies on how racial perceptions carry over into virtual spaces. The Northwestern University journal article "Is it a game? Evidence for social influence in the virtual world" is authored by Paul W. Eastwick (the recipient of the Fellowship award) and Wendi L. Gardner, and is now available for purchase. However, John Timmer's concise summary at ars technica is also worth a read.

What have your own experiences with prejudice in virtual spaces been? Do you feel there's something to Northwestern University's findings on race?

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