The Sciences

People Are Racist in the Virtual World, Too

Reality BaseBy Melissa LafskyDec 3, 2008 12:59 AM


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Ever since their inception and hasty popularity rise, Second Life and its virtual cohorts have been a fascinating fishbowl into human nature. With their near-limitless possibilities for meeting, dating, battling, selling to, and influencing strangers, these cyber-worlds are perfect for studying the ways we behave and interact—both the beautiful and the ugly. And there's been plenty of the latter to go around, from rape to infidelity to theft—in other words, all the same cruelty, discourtesy, and immorality that goes on in real life, only in a smaller, more publicly track-able format. As such, it should be no surprise that the prejudices that play out in regular society—such as, oh, say, racism—also manifest in virtual worlds. In a new paper

published online in Social Influence,

Northwestern University professor Wendi Gardner

and grad student Paul Eastwick found that avatars with darker skin in the virtual world (a close cousin to Second Life) were less likely to have a basic request granted by another avatar.

The researchers had 416 participants/avatars make 2 back-to-back requests of another avatar. The first was to teleport to 50 virtual locations and allow the requester to take a screenshot at each one (a royal pain in the cyber-rear). The second, more reasonable request was to travel to a single beach and let the asker take a screenshot. For those requesting avatars that were white, 20 percent more people said yes to the second request. For African American-looking avatars, the increase was only 8 percent. What does this mean? As Sharon Begley of Newsweekput it:

[B]ack in the real world, decades of psychology studies have shown that whether or not someone agrees to a request under these experimental conditions—and also in real life—depends on whether they think the requester is worthy of impressing, For dark-skin avatars, apparently, the answer is, not so much.

So much for the end of racism.

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