Skin Color Still Matters in Video Games

By Jeremy Hsu | September 4, 2014 2:44 pm
Avatars from Second Life video game

Avatars from Second Life. Image by LindenLab via Flickr

Video games represent the ultimate in escapist technology for millions of people — a way to spend a few enjoyable hours slaying fantasy monsters or exploring science fiction worlds. But the dominant skin color of virtual avatars in a game can still have a very real-world impact on the experience of minority gamers, according to a recent study.

The research, conducted by Jong-Eun Roselyn Lee at Ohio State University, used the online game “Second Life” to examine how diversity among virtual avatars affected the experience of both white and black players. She found that low-diversity representations of “Second Life” dominated by white avatars led black players to create virtual avatars that also appeared whiter. Such circumstances even made black players less willing to reveal their real racial identity through their avatars.

The Cool Kids

Lee gathered 56 study participants — half identifying as white and half identifying as black. She then had them read a fabricated magazine story titled “Meet the Coolest ‘Second Life’ Residents.” The eight “Second Life” avatars profiled in the story were either all white, in the low-diversity scenario, or an equal mix of white, black, Hispanic and Asian, in the high-diversity scenario.

She then had them perform two tasks: Create and customize their own virtual avatars, and rate their willingness to reveal their real racial identity through the appearance of their virtual avatar.

She found that black participants reported less willingness in the low-diversity scenario, and that they also created whiter avatars, as judged by objective raters. By comparison, white study participants were largely unaffected by either the high-diversity or low-diversity scenarios.

Beyond Black and White

As always, there are limits to what this study shows. First of all, the study participants never actually played “Second Life” beyond the very early stage of making a virtual avatar. A future study could improve on this by looking at diversity in the context of actual gameplay, as Lee herself mentions. The results also don’t encompass other racial or ethnic groups such as Hispanics and Asians. And Lee says that she didn’t factor in how strongly racial minority individuals identify with their particular race or ethnicity.

The study’s focus on “Second Life” also necessarily limits what its results mean for other games. An online game that allows players to create customizable avatars and socialize with hundreds of other players in an open world represents a very different game experience than a single-player game that puts people in control of a very specific character within a much more focused story.

In some sense, game developers have less control over racial diversity in their open-world online video games such as “Second Life,” since they put the power of individual character customization in the hands of hundreds or thousands of players. But developers have greater control over how they present racial diversity within single-player games, such as Telltale’s “The Walking Dead” or Ubisoft’s “Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation.”

The effects of avatar skin color may also become more complicated in video games that allow people to play non-human characters, such as elves and orcs in the popular online game “World of Warcraft.” In the case of “Second Life,” the game allows players to create non-human avatars such as robots, “furry” humanoids with animal features, and even vehicles such as aircraft.

Video Game Diversity

Yet anecdotal accounts from some “Second Life” players seem to support the study’s finding that the skin colors of human avatars still matters for the player’s experience. The study quoted this experience of a participant in a “Second Life” field experiment:

“One of the strangest things that I felt going through Second Life was that I was really one of the only black avatars pretty much everywhere I went… As I started to realize that I was literally one of the only black people on Second Life, I started to wonder what everybody else thought about the only token black guy walking around by himself.”

The study of racial diversity in video games also matters as part of a broader, ongoing discussion about the representation of women, LGBT individuals and racial minorities in both video games and the game development industry. So even limited studies of diversity in games can help move the conversation forward, step by step.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, top posts
  • Jhera35

    This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in a while. This “study” is even worse than the bad ones presented through CNN.

    If the study participants have never actually played “Second Life,” except for creating avatars and “field experiments,” how exactly are their decisions an indicator of diversity in the game?

    Worse, yet… 56 participants? That’s it?

    And, of course, there’s the problem of the so-called “study” being only about Second Life.

    Why not IMVU, which is incredibly diverse? Why not one or more MMORPGs?

    • Miguel Lopez

      Did you read the entire article? While the headline does lead one to believe color still matters, which it doesn’t, the main body mentions that not all the variables were covered, such as other ethnicity’s, how the people involved never played the game, the focus on one particular game. This was a very small and direct study that can play into the larger picture. If you had read the article you would know that.

      • Jhera35

        Yes. I did actually read the entire article.

        If you had read it clearly, and my entire comment, you would see that the writer has slanted the article toward making it seem like color does matter even though this “study” doesn’t fulfill the requirements for non-biased research (at least, as outlined in summary by this writer).

        And yes, I did see that the writer covered what the study didn’t include mid-article. Pity that the writer chose to add the “Beyond Black and White” section mid-article rather than at the start to forewarn readers. Of course, that would have been fine if the writer would have stopped there, but he chose to misdirect readers in the very next section:

        As I noted in my comment, the writer stated: “Yet anecdotal accounts from some “Second Life” players seem to support the study’s finding that the skin colors of human avatars still matters for the player’s experience.”

        Note: The writer didn’t supply proof of these accounts, such as direct quotes, links, player names, etc, but instead offered up a single negative experience anecdote from one of the study’s participants (who the writer pointed out earlier in the article isn’t an actual “Second Life” player). The participant did a “field experiment” and no details are supplied about the length of the experiment, the race/ethnicity/skin color of the participant and there is no re-emphasis on the fact that this study did not look at Asian, Hispanic or non-human data.

        That last part is HUGE given that many participants in these types of games, I know from experience as someone who writes professionally about online virtual worlds and games, customize their avatars with non-human skin elements, such as colors not found on humans in nature, stripes, fur, scales, etc.

        Lastly, this “small and direct study” plays no part in the larger picture when it’s designed from a poor sampling of non-players and contains data heavily skewed data to prove a specific argument (i.e. that skin color, in the black and white context, matters in online games).

        Now, I’m not saying that skin colors don’t matter. Obviously, if you want your avatar to be green, pink, white, black, yellow, brown or blue… it matters. But this article fails to show how this study proved that white skin is the dominant color and that a person with black skin should feel like they’re “a token black guy.” Worse yet, there is no mention about the time of day that the “field experiment” took place or which area(s) of “Second Life” the participant quoted above was in at that time…. additional important data.

  • RJLee

    Hello Jhera35 and Miguel,

    I am the author of the article Mr. Hsu discussed in this post. I think Mr. Hsu did a beautiful job presenting the key information, findings, and implications of the experiment. I also appreciate your thoughtful comments, as I believe having this discussion is one of the many ways we could (borrowing Mr. Hsu’s words) “move the conversation forward, step by step” with respect to the issues concerning diversity in virtual worlds and video game environments.

    And Jhera35:

    The primary objective of the study was to examine how diversity representation in virtual worlds affects people’s identity expression via avatars. In addressing this question, I drew on social scientific theories and concepts (such as “social identity theory,” “social identity contingencies,” and “racial passing”). Second Life was chosen as the virtual world for the experiment because it offered an avatar customization interface that was most suitable for the experiment procedure; of course, the fact that the experiment was conducted only in the context of Second Life limits the generalizability of the findings, which should be further addressed in future research.

    Also, I would like to clarify that the quote you noted came from another publication (that is, the “field experiment” you are referring to and the experiment presented in this post are not the same study). As a matter of fact, my research was inspired by quite a few research studies that reflected on the problems associated with the lack of racial/ethnic diversity in avatar-based virtual worlds. The quote powerfully represented and resonated with the findings of such studies, and that’s why I cited it in the article.

    Information relevant to your questions regarding the sample, procedure, and the motivation behind why individuals without prior experience with Second Life were recruited, etc. can be found in the full journal article. If you are interested in reading it, please email me and I will be more than happy to send you a copy.

    • Nick

      Dr. Lee, if you do any more studies you should look at gender as well.

  • Uncle Al

    LGBT is sexual orientation virulent discrimination. There must be a rainbow of tolerence – LGBT, LGBTI, LGBTQQ, MSGI, GSD, SGL, GLBTA, GSM, MSM, FABGLITTER, LGBTQ+! Put an absolute end to Caucasian heterosexuality.

  • Shelia Grady

    I think this study is miss leading. I think it only shows that people want to fit in. Try this with mostly darker skin Avatars in place Like darker Africans, Darker African Americans, People with their background in India ect…and invite people of all colors to make Avatars. I would bet you see lighter skin people making their Avatars appear darker then they are. And do a study were it is full of more diversity in the Avartar color range equal light and dark and medium shades. And I think they will find people more willing to be their selves, or maybe even make themselves blue, purple or green if the Avatar’s are mostly blue, purple, green, Only proving that people want to fit in, in their surrondings. No one wants to be the only dark skin person in the game, anymore then one wants to be the only lighter skin person in a game. Or the only purple person, or the only skinny person, or the only fat person. or the only person with a square head, or two heads, ect… I think this is an incomplete study and in so, just serves to fuel the fire of racism in this Nation. Go ahead and prove me wrong, and conduct a study that is not so one sided. It is like they were looking for this outcome, and when you are looking for it, then that is what you will find. Morgan Freeman said it best, When you look at him see a man, or see Morgan Freeman, not a black man that is not who he is he, is a man! Or when looking at me see a woman, or see Shelia Grady, not just a white woman because that is not who I am. I happen to have quite a bit of American Indian running through my vines, my grandmother was 3/4 Cherokee. So am I a white woman? NO! I am a mix of mostly American Indian and Irish, Which means, I am an American! There are very few people in America with only one type of blood running through their veins. We are all, more alike then you think. And we are all Americans. That is the core of America it is made of, a melting pot of people of all ethnicities that came here to be free to live the way they see fit. without being told what church to attend, what person to marry, how many children to have, ect… Naturally that means with rules like you can’t just go out and harm someone just because you want to. That is why we do have laws. But if you are kind to your fellow man and work hard then no madder who you are you can have any life you wish, you just have to be willing to go get it, with hard work, commitment., and dedication. People should look into their heritage background. I bet most will find they have more then one ethnic blood running through their veins. So truthfully we are none white or black, ect… we are all American, a melting pot of different cultures.. We are all equal in the eyes of God and should be in the eyes of each other as well. If you come here and you are 100% Irish, ect.. then you are a Irish immorgrant and given time your offsping will add to your mixture, because it is unlikely that all your children will marry 100% Irish partners. Or whatever your ethnicity is. And that is when you will become what it means to be a true American. Ok, getting off my soapbox now! What are your thoughts?

  • Bluestar

    Wow……. That’s weird. Like a game becomes like biased?

  • Nick

    hey, Top Ten Coolest People in Second Life = Top Nerdiest People in Real Life

  • Nima Benoir

    What would be really fasinating, explore the concept of shared ingrained ideas. I mean why human looking avatars? Why builds with kitchens, pools, toilets? Why homes to “live” in? In a world where we can look like, be like, sail in, live in, DO, anything, create anything at all, in these virtual frontiers, why do we replicate our real lives even down to the smallest detail? Why are our dreams so limited when in at least these worlds, the possibilities are so much more? And if we are missing opportunities in virtual worlds due to ingrained concepts, what are we missing or “not seeing” in the real one?

  • Herring

    I think the fact that the study was only of creating avatars, and not actually playing the game, removes most of the value. It’s one thing if looking at a bunch of white avatars makes people more likely to create white-ish avatars immediately after. If you wanted to make a better study, you’d give people a nonhuman avatar and set them loose to play the game for a few hours in one of two Second Life environments: one where everyone is white, and another where avatars are evenly-distributed across races. Then after a few hours’ play, tell participants that they now get to create their own avatar, and compare results between the two groups. By letting them play for a few hours, they will be “invested in” their character and begin to identify with it. My suspicion is that people who played in the all-white world would create whiter avatars. But I think this just means that people have some tendency to conform to their environments, when given the option. It would be interesting to add a third world, where everyone is black. If my hypothesis is correct, people would create blacker avatars.

    On the other hand, there’s the possibility that people don’t attach much meaning to the skin color of avatars (their own or other players’). From the article: “As I started to realize that I was literally one of the only black
    people on Second Life, I started to wonder what everybody else thought
    about the only token black guy walking around by himself.” It’s possible that few players gave it any thought at all. In an environment where your appearance can be varied with a few mouseclicks, and include robots and anthropomorphized animals, the appearance of other players (being irrelevant to the mechanics of the game) may not matter to most participants.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar