Avatars and identity

A few weeks ago, when I was working on my post for the Jetpack blogtrain, my partner and I were talking about the effects of the ongoing virtualization of the world. He said something that bothered me. He said, to paraphraze, that the problems with racism and sexism would disappear once everything moved into a virtual world. It was just a throwaway line in the middle of a larger conversation but it stuck with me. I’ve been trying to understand what it was that bothered me so much about it. Finally I caught on to the fact that it was such a straight, white male thing to say. Which is to say that only a straight white male could miss just how important it is to be able to have an avatar that you can actually relate to.

Most gamers don’t remember the first time they got to play someone they could really relate to. For me that moment was on the release day of Halo: Reach. For those of you who don’t follow the likes of Halo, that was 2010. My first ever video game was Super Mario Bros on NES back in 1986 and I’ve been playing more or less actively ever since then. I’ve played female characters before, but they’ve always been either princesses or characters like Lara Croft, there for the male gaze. I was always the tomboy who got mud or dung on all the dresses she was forced to wear, so I couldn’t relate to the princesses and everything in society told me that the Lara Crofts of the world were something I should actively avoid becoming. I think it’s easy to dismiss the importance of avatars when all you’ve ever known is the ability to choose an avatar that represents who you are.

In John Scalzi’s Lock In there’s a character in the cyber space of people who have been permanently been left locked inside their bodies who was born locked in who represents herself as a candle (if I recall correctly). Most humans will still choose to represent themselves as human though. There’s a fairly recent study that found that when men played with female avatars, they engaged in stereotypically female behavior. They flirt, dance etc. They act more stereotypically female than female identified gamers playing female characters. On the other hand, white gamers assigned a race other than caucasian in a game will react with anger. Now granted, this is all in the current situation and over generations it may change.

Which is to say that avatars matter much more than you might think of at first blush. Which means that while we can use avatars online to disguise our identities, the attitudes we hold outside in the real world follow us online. And unfortunately that also means that it’s going to take a long while and a lot of work before those attitudes disappear entirely.

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