Caught Again: Avatars Are Just Humans, Too

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Or as Raph Koster puts it: Avatars aren’t tokens. They are not just playing pieces, they – just because they look human – are being read and interpreted as human. And with that comes all the prejudicial crust we so heavily rely on.

We have a lot of “specialized hardware” around this in our brains, and avatars tend to trigger a lot of it. For example, the fusiform face area or FFA is a part of the brain that seems to be involved in facial recognition, and also seems to fire off when identifying specific objects with fine distinctions (for example, it fires in birdwatchers when identifying birds, and in car aficionados when recognizing specific makes and models). The interesting thing is that the FFA activates even with iconified faces — with stuff that we just think of as a face.

In effect, our tokens have become rich enough to cause us to subconsciously treat them as people, whether or not we intended it. The magic circle here is quite simply shattered, at a fundamental psychological and biological level. In fact, we can even exploit these these even more: we can “hack the users” by exploiting some of these reactions, in the same way that we exploit classical conditioning with tricks like “ding” sounds. Having distant 3rd person avatars makes people more likely to see them as tokens; having a close-up perspective where you see faces makes you more likely to see them as people — and then this has carry-over effects to things like, say, PvP systems and the harassment that could ensue (since vile mistreatment of victims is more likely to occur on objectified targets…)

Indeed, this is even proven by science: A study by Paul W. Eastwick and Wendi L. Gardner shows that requests are differently granted or refused based on the avatar’s skin colour.

In one of the most striking findings, 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. […]

While Koster’s article is from 2009, it hasn’t changed a year later, as Elisabeth Soep shoes in her article on boingboing about Fox Harrell: In fact, the stereotyping goes further, as it is actively implemented by the games themselves.

Fox: In terms of software, the systems for creating identities have never seemed adequate for my self-expression. Let’s just take computer role-playing games for example:

In Elder Scrolls III and IV: I wanted to create a character I could identify as African-inspired (the “Redguard race”) but then was automatically made less intelligent.

In Guild Wars: Nightfall, I could make an African-inspired character - but I wanted to both have [dread]locks and wear ornate masquerade-style clothing. I could not - locks were allowed for the earthy Ranger class, and the clothes only allowed with the illusion-casting Mesmer class - never to be combined.

In Phantasy Star Online, I wanted to be elegant and clean-lined, and smartly-appointed. I could only be a female robot (called a Cast), males were always boxy and hulking.

In Neverwinter Nights, I could actually make a character I was very happy with, but in Neverwinter Nights 2 the style was removed.

In World of Warcraft, my first inclination was to play a spectral, Undead, ghostlike character - but the males all had poor posture, distended jaws, hulking shoulders, and silly hairstyles.

In these games, your appearances, abilities, eventualities and more are all often tied in with categories for race, class (profession), gender, and more. Certainly, these limitations primarily are used for game-mechanical reasons - each player takes on a different, complimentary role (though primarily only for fighting). The limitations also lend a certain coherence to the fictitious worlds of the games. Yet, I often find that my own personal choices for self-expression are unsupported. It is not just well-known issues of race and gender. What if I simply want my character to be both rootsy and dainty? It all becomes more complicated when abilities are so closely tied with categories and appearances.

What does that mean for me as a game designer? I can’t really decide yet – a complete character creation tool that allows every possible look is downright impossible to implement; a purely abstract representation (a token) again might hinder the possibility to tell a story.

Either way: these are thoughts to keep track of and to remember them from time to time.