Even Avatars Are Racist?

Now that Americans are hanging around virtual worlds almost as much (it seems) as the real one, research on how we behave in places like Second Life and how things like our choice of avatar spills over into the real world is heating up. As I described in a column last February, players who had super-attractive avatars have an exaggerated view of their real-world appearance and act accordingly. For instance, they believe that especially attractive men or women whose faces they’re shown from an online dating site would be interested in them. (When you have a more realistic view of your attractiveness, you dial down your expectations.) Now a study finds an uglier side to avatars: they display racist attitudes just as real people in the real world do.

In the experiment that Paul W. Eastwick and Wendi L. Gardner of Northwestern University describe in a paper called “Is It a Game? Evidence for Social Influence in the Virtual World,” published online in the journal Social Influence, one avatar asked another if he would teleport to Duda Beach (one of the sites in the virtual world There.com) with her and let her take a screenshot of him. (The him’s and her’s are interchangeable here; the scientists used male and female avatars in various permutations.)

The avatar was more likely to agree if that request had been preceded by a more unreasonable one: teleporting to 50 locations with her to take screenshots. That would have required about two hours of teleporting and traveling—an unreasonable request. When the one-beach request was presented alone, players were less likely to say okay.

What seems to happen—and this is true in real life as well—is that when you reject one request, and the requester then makes a second, more moderate one, you reciprocate what you perceive as her “concession” by going from brushing her off to acquiescing.

Then the scientists gave the avatar making the request dark skin. While white avatars got about 20 percent more of those they asked to agree to the modest request after the unreasonable one, the increase for the dark-toned avatars was only 8 percent. Even when the avatars modified what they were asking, players still mostly brushed them off.

Again back in the real world, decades of psychology studies have shown that whether or not someone agrees to a request under these experimental conditions—and also in real life—depends on whether they think the requester is worthy of impressing, For dark-skin avatars, apparently, the answer is, not so much. I should add that the players knew they were part of a psych study; not even that had a significant effect on (let's just say it) racism.

“You would think when you’re wandering around this fantasyland, operating outside of the normal laws of time, space and gravity and meeting all types of strange characters, that you might behave differently,” Eastwick said. “But people exhibited the same type of behavior, and the same type of racial bias, that they show in the real world all the time,” where people are more uncomfortable with minorities and less likely to help them.