Racism in Virtual Worlds

Two social psychologists from Northwestern University conducted one of the first experimental field studies in a virtual, online world and found racial biases operate in much the same ways that they do in the material, offline world.   The study’s co-investigators are Northwestern’s Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral student in psychology, and Wendi L. Gardner, associate professor of psychology and member of Northwestern’s Center for Technology and Social Behavior.  The study was conducted in There.com, which is similar to Second Life, and offers users a relatively unstructured online virtual world where people choose avatars – or human-looking graphics – to navigate and interact.

This next bit gets a little technical, so bear with me.

The experiemental study design is referred to as a “door in the face” (DITF) and it works like this:  the experimenter (in this case an avatar) first makes an unreasonably large request to which the responder is expected to say no, followed by a more moderate request.  In the past, researchers have found that people are more likely to comply with the moderate request when it was preceded by the large request than when the moderate request was presented alone, and this held true in the virtual world as well.   In the virtual world, the experiment’s moderate request was: “Would you teleport to Duda Beach with me and let me take a screenshot of you?” In the DITF condition, that request was preceded by a request of the avatar to have screenshots taken in 50 different locations — requiring about two hours of teleporting and traveling.

Still reading?  Good.  What these researchers then did was to vary the skin tone of the avatar making the request, like this:


What’s interesting to note is the way that the skin tone change altered the responses:

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 it may not be surprising to learn that people take their racism with them into these (supposedly) new virtual worlds, this research is still noteworthy both for its innovative methodology and because it challenges the conventional wisdom on two fronts: one that we are living in a post-racial society and that the Internet is an inherently liberatory technology that offers an escape from old hierarchies of oppression.