Your Identity as an Avatar: Our Perception of Perfection and Race

WhyvilleIn new media, there are numerous methods of self presentation, through Facebook, various virtual reality platforms and through, of course, written communication. It has been a while since I stopped to think about the way people present themselves and whether this has any correlation with reality, but it has always been a question sitting on the back burner.  In a space like Facebook, it is not hard to misrepresent, or even slightly alter your identity on an informational level (i.e. city and state, age, history, interests and hobbies, etc.) but it becomes a little more challenging, I imagine, to doctor images and otherwise visually represent yourself through a social networking site. However, on a virtual reality site, this is simply not the case. In a space where the user selects and/or generates content, a whole new can of worms is opened.

Yasmin B. Kafai, Melissa Cook, and Deborah A. Fields out of the University of California at Los Angeles conducted a study (“Blacks Deserve Bodies Too!” Design and Discussion about Diversity and Race in a Teen Virtual World”) regarding one such virtual reality site called Whyville, open to players ages 8 to 16. In Whyville, all of the content is generated by the users and are distributed among the community. Players are allowed to communicate in free-form, and the site includes an e-mail platform for doing so. The authors of the study particularly found that this site was a perfect case study as it represents an isolated world from which they hope gain some perspective on self identity.

The case study on Whyville brought up some very interesting observations about self representation in a virtual reality – they claimed that it was about player investment and self projection, whether full or partial. To be honest, I think it is a lot more simple than the authors calculations and data project. Not to dismiss the articles thesis, but I think it is about personal insecurities in the players at the most. How many times a day do we find ourselves wishing that we worked harder or looked better or had a different hair color (yeah, you, ladies) or wishing we were taller or more muscular (boys?). On a virtual reality site, you have the ability to contour yourself into someone else; you have the ability and opportunity to fix those “imperfections”. Because, who knows, maybe your virtual reality life will be better than your real life because you gained those extra 4 inches and some biceps or that long gorgeous blonde hair you’ve been dying for.

Now obviously, players are not consciously following this thought process while sitting in front of the computer. But think about it: draw it back to the Facebook example; is anyone ever completely honest about what their favorite movies or TV shows are? Even on a site as populated, (semi-) reliable and controlled as Facebook, there are no measures in place to demand accuracy or reality. I won’t try to pretend that I am completely innocent – I have never seen The Notebook but I am pretty sure that I’ve liked the movie’s page – oops.

On a little bit less skeptical note, I would like to touch on the author’s discussion of race within the Whyville, and the conclusions they draw from it, because I do think that they hit the mark. The authors discuss the absence of parts to purchase to create a fully black avatar. Kerri_87 posted an article for discussion, essentially noting that there is an abundance of “black faces” for sale but an absence of “black bodies”.

Remembering that all content on the platform is user-generated, what does this say about racism? Well, I’m not entirely sure. But the authors assert that it has an important bearing on “ethnic identity development, stating,  “an important milestone in ethnic identity development for adolescents of all races is to become aware of racial issues and to realize that different people are having different experiences and developing different points of view on race.” So, maybe the discussion of Kerri_87 is an important one for Whyville, and all adolescents, to be having.

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