This is the second installment in a series about what makes avatars useful in Social VR environments.
How do avatars change the way we interact with each other in Social VR? Virtual worlds give us the freedom to take on physical forms that we can’t inhabit in real life, but taking on these avatars also means experiencing the biases that come with them.
In some avatars, this may mean experiencing prejudices that you face on a daily basis while in other avatars it may mean experiencing biases you never considered confronting as a human being—such as the prejudice faced by a robot, or a bunny rabbit. Regardless of what avatar you choose, what you are really experiencing is the cultural conditioning around certain populations, species, and archetypes, as well as the personal biases people hold for or against these groups.
As one person from a Social VR platform reported, “It’s better to be a hedgehog than a little person.”
In other words, people have far more associations about little people and their capabilities rather than a woodland creature.
At their best, avatars can lead to more empathy. Studies have shown that when the young people embody elderly avatars their bias against the elderly decreases. Similarly, when white people embody black avatars, implicit bias against black people decreases. But at their worst, avatars can lead to—and even encourage—experiences of harassment.
Avatars and Sexual Harassment
In 2017, my company, The Extended Mind, conducted a study in which we introduced women to Social VR for the first time. Many of them chose to inhabit robot avatars. When asked why, they expressed concern about being a female avatar in an anonymous online space.
“It was kind of nice just being a generic avatar because I kind of got the feeling from the beginning, like if I had been a blonde girl,” one subject reported. “If I was an attractive avatar it would be weird…like unwanted attention and they would all talk to me and be annoying.”
Receiving unwanted attention is something young women are familiar with. And when Social VR spaces appear full of men, or hedgehogs, or robots (even if women were the ones actually embodying them), it gives the impression that there aren’t women there. One research participant from this study said she would have liked to see other female avatars to feel less alone.
Female avatars tend to receive a lot of attention in Social VR. Women report that this attention is usually unwanted, and often sexual in nature: 49% of women have reported experiencing sexual harassment in social VR. What accounts for these high statistics?
The sexual attention directed at women has many origins. The anonymity that online spaces offer harassers is a contributing factor, but doesn’t explain all of it. Women are sexually harassed in non-anonymous contexts, too.
We want to draw attention to the hypersexualized female avatars that are offered in many Social VR platforms. Essentially, the types of avatars offered by any platform could contribute to the harassment of women because because feminine qualities are not valued. Instead of presenting women as whole-being creatures with humanity, sexualized avatars reduce women to body parts.
If Social VR environments encourage spaces and present default avatars that show femininity is valued, then it becomes more likely that women will feel safe expressing femininity.
The Affordance of Avatars
In behavioral science, the term, “affordance” usually refers to complementarity between actors and their environments. But I’d like to suggest that affordances also exist between actors. By this I mean that around each actor there are a set of expectations about how that actor should be treated based on their perceived age, race, gender, class, and the contexts in which they are situated in popular culture.
Young women, for instance, are the population most affected by sexual harassment. This is not because young women want to be harassed, but because ‘youth’ and ‘femininity’ are two of the most sexualized traits in American culture. In Social VR, this tendency towards the harassment of young women is exaggerated by the hypersexualization of female avatars.
Whether it’s the elf girl with voluptuous breasts, the young anime girl in a short skirt, or the woman dressed in a skintight jumpsuit, all of these avatars exaggerate standards of female beauty and play on sexual tropes. The anime girl, for example, is a classic example of the fetishization of young Asian women. In anime, the girls are drawn to exaggerate their sex appeal and depictions emphasis their body parts rather than their humanity.
Media has trained us to see anime girls as sexual objects. Of course avatars with such associations are going to experience harassment.
When designers offer sexualized female avatars as the default, they are creating a space where ‘femininity’ doesn’t feel safe. It’s no wonder that many women choose to don gender-neutral robot avatars for their first forays into Social VR.
To be fair to designers, not all Social VR platforms sexualize their female avatars. And almost all VR platforms allow you to customize your avatar, at which point you have the option to design a female avatar who can present a more balances or complex version of herself. But it’s important that we examine and acknowledge what contributes to harassment in Social VR.
Image Credit: Veeso / V- -R