Our Avatars, Our Projected SelvesS

Does a "sexualized" avatar invite disrespectful behavior online? While conducting an experiment to measure human empathy toward human actors compared with digital representations, researchers discovered a strange quirk: men judged the avatar pleading for sympathy more harshly than the actress.

Karl MacDorman of Indiana University conducted the study as part of his ongoing work examining the changing relationship between humans, digital representations of humans, and robots. The initial aim of the experiment was to consider issues in doctor-patient confidentiality, and the actress and avatars both asked the participant (who was in the role of a doctor) not to reveal that her partner had contracted genital herpes. The reactions from the participants in the study prompted MacDorman to conclude that avatar representations were perceived very differently:

Overall, women responded more sympathetically to Gordon, with 52 per cent acceding to her request compared with 45 per cent of men. But whereas women's attitudes were consistent however Gordon was presented, the male volunteers' attitudes swung sharply. The two human versions got a far more sympathetic hearing than their avatar counterparts. "Clearly, presentational factors influence people's decisions, including decisions of moral and ethical consequence," says MacDorman.

But why did the men sway so sharply in their opinions based on the method of delivery?

Eileen Zimmerman over at True/Slant points to research from Stanford University researcher Jesse Fox, who argues what the avatar was wearing triggered a reaction in men. A specialist in human-computer interaction, Fox published a smaller study in 2009 that confirmed that men responded with sexual stereotypes to avatars coded as being aggressive or sexual, and commented to the New Scientist that the belly baring shirt and more prominent breasts of the avatar sparked the reaction.

I was puzzled by Fox's explanation for two reasons. First, that Avatar doesn't seem sexualized, particularly in comparison to most of the default representations of women seen online and in game space. (I also recall reading something about people who chose larger sized avatars being harassed in an online space, but I can't recall where that article was published.)

Secondly, I wonder if the reactions had to do with the gender of the avatar - or the race and gender presentation.

Two years ago, Hyphen writer Neelanjana Banerjee headed to Second Life taking a look at Asian identity in cyberspace. However, what she found was her avatar representation brought a flood of unanticipated sexual attention:

The avatar choices had given me nothing that came anywhere near my real skin color, so I decided to invest some money-$1 US converts to $300 Linden, the currency of SL-so I could embody a body that looked more like my own and feel more confident. The most accurate skin color to my actual color that I found was labeled "sexy skin" and went for some $300 Linden. I quickly embodied it and was shocked at my virtual measurements. Let's just say that my avatar seemed to be modeled off of Barbie's black friend Devon. The biggest surprise was when I was changing into a new outfit-a denim dress bought at an SL equivalent to Ross Dress for Less for $45 Linden-and found out that my vagina was, let's just say, very real and kind of pornographic. By trying to look like myself, I seem to have embodied an avatar skin made for sex acts.

[Tech writer Wagner James Au] estimates that 40 percent of Second Life residents come in world looking for sexual activity, something that takes a lot more skill than I could even muster up-the sex on Second Life comes from users hacking into animations meant for other things entirely, like riding a motorcycle. Yet when I mention the over-sexuality of my dark skinned avatar, Au says that in a skin like that, I would be pretty much asking for it.

Even taking into account that the skin was labeled sexy, other SL users found that donning a different type of skin opened them up to all manner of harassment:

In his book, Au writes about a white woman named Erika Thereian who changed her blue-eyed, blonde avatar and for three months modeled "the skin of a staggeringly photorealistic, attractive young African American woman." During the three months she wore this particular skin, she faced a good deal of racism-including being called racial epithets by strangers in world and even having her own friends distance themselves from her.

Banerjee also refers to a blog post on Diary of An Anxious Black Woman, where the writer details her student's experiences in SL:

One of my black female students last semester reported being sexually harassed in Second Life, when she created her avatar to reflect herself (interestingly, she was at first annoyed that she couldn't create an avatar that accurately reflected her skin shade, which already says something about the kind of racial exclusion the "game" already practices), but once she wandered around Second Life as a "black woman," she kept getting sexually harassed. Which, of course, was reason enough to leave the online environment because, you know, we can experience that OFF line. Granted, Second Life offers individuals various opportunities to "escape" their real lives, like creating an avatar that's not even human or even an Earthling, but still...what does it mean to reproduce the same experiences that one encounters offline in cyberspace, especially if someone doesn't want to "escape" their racial and gender identity, in fact wants to represent themselves similarly but in a digitized format?

This semester, another black female student recounted an experience she received today on Second Life, when some fools got into their virtual cars and proceeded to chase her for a full 10 minutes! They did not succeed in running her over. I of course told my student that she did not need to do her assignment on Second Life, that she can in fact choose a different online community. However, she is not taking this virtual world nearly as seriously as I am since she's getting a kick out of the experience (namely because she has created more than one avatar, and she finds these different interactions worthy of a larger sociological project on race and gender. By contrast, her white male avatar just got an invitation to join some mock World "Shock" Exchange group, in which he'll learn how to acquire property and money in Second Life - um, yeah. He's getting red carpets rolled out for him, while his black female counterpart is getting chased down!)

Race and gender bias exists online because it exists in real life, and it manifests itself in various ways, some of which are very hard to measure. While I am not sold on Fox's explanation for MacDorman's data quirk, hopefully other researchers will use the overt expressions of bias in digital interactions to explore what motivates these radically divergent results.

Edit: Wagner James Au just wrote in to correct the statistics on sex and Second Life. He says:

The amount of sexual content in SL is a controversial topic, but reasonable estimates range from 5-15% (and that's adult content, not overall sexual activity, which is probably less.)

(Image Credit: Indianna University School of Informatics via New Scientist)

Even in the virtual world, men judge women on looks [New Scientist]
Why Men Are Sexist Towards Avatars in Tight Shirts [True/Slant]
Tripping Through Second Life [Hyphen]
Transcending "Race" in Cyberspace? Yeah, Right! (Cached) [Diary of An Anxious Black Woman]