Reality, Unreality and Racial Bias.

Ta-Nehisi Coates asks:

... am I the only African-American gamer who makes his toons look as black as possible? It's the weirdest thing. My younger brother takes this to laughable extremes--in WoW he made his tauren druid as dark as he could. Even on my blood elf pally, I made sure he had a tan. Still got the shock of red hair though. I need that.

My answer? Nope, you're not alone. While I'm not a serious gamer, I do play The Sims 3, and I consciously create "sims of color." Most are black; others are Asian, South Asian and Latino. Most of the sims that come with the game are white, and I just really like to break that up a bit. So I think I understand Ta-Nehisi's compulsion to, um, black it up.

But for those who participate multiplayer online role-playing games (like TNC-favorite World of Warcraft), going black might not be the best idea. A recent Northwestern University study finds that race affects social influence in virtual worlds, writes Jesse at Racism Review.

Researchers used a platform similar to Second Life, leading different avatars through the There universe and interacting with its inhabitants. The avatars would make requests of other users and try to persuade them into agreeing by using the Door In The Face (DITF) technique -- where one person makes an unreasonably large demand of another only to follow up with a more reasonable one when the first is denied. The moderate request is more likely to be accepted when preceded by an outrageous one than if just asked cold.

But DITF doesn't work equally for all avatars. Science Daily notes:

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.

There's a 12 percent difference in how requests from white and black avatars were received. Paul W. Eastwick, one of the study's conductors, said, "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. 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."

What strikes me about all of this is that when people of color enter virtual realities, there's often a desire to increase the diversity in the field by creating characters who look like us. It parallels the real-life fight for diversity and inclusion. But when we enter those virtual realities with our brown-skinned avatars, we often face the same problems that our brown-skinned selves would face in real life. As Eastwick said, the behavior from the real world transfers to our escapist realities.

But what does that leave us with?

--Shani Hilton