Researchers find racism translates to virtual worlds as well

It's easy to develop a confusing picture of what goes on inside of multiuser virtual worlds, such as Second Life and World of WarCraft. Some reports suggest that the virtual reality enables people to escape from social interactions they otherwise find difficult; others highlight how users of virtual worlds find them satisfying because of the rich social interactions they enable. Some researchers at Northwestern University looked into just how well real-life social influences translate to the the virtual realm and discovered one that does: racism. HangZhou Night Net

The authors used two different instances of social manipulation that are known to work well in the real world. The first is the "foot in the door" (FITD) approach, in which a small, easily accomplished favor is asked. These tend to make the person who granted the favor happy about their cooperation, and more likely to agree to further requests, even if they require more effort.

The second method, called "door in the face" (DITF), accomplishes the same thing using a different approach. The initial request, instead of being easy to handle, involves an extensive effort on the part of the person asked. Usually, that request is declined, but it makes people more likely to agree to a further, less time-intensive request. Instead of being inwardly-focused, the DITF method depends largely on a person's perception of the individual or organization making the request; the more responsible and credible they seem, the more likely the second request will be agreed to.

The researchers added a second layer on top of these two methods of manipulation by using avatars with skin tones set at the two extremes of light and dark that the environment,, allows. This let them check for whether another pervasive social influence, racism, holds sway in the virtual world.

The tests involved the ability of users to instantly teleport to any location in the game. The control condition, and the second request for both the FITD and DITF approaches, was a teleport to a specific location to take part in a screenshot. For FITD, the first, easy request was a screenshot in place. For DITF, the initial request involved a series of screenshots around the virtual world that might take as much as two hours.

416 users were approached at random. Somewhat amusingly, about 20 of those approached for each test did something unexpected. For FITD, they simply teleported away before the question could be completed. Even more oddly, over 20 people agreed to spend a few hours taking screenshots with random strangers.

It turns out that social manipulation works just as well in virtual worlds as it does in the real one, with one very significant caveat. The FITD approach, which depends on people feeling good about themselves, increased cooperation on the second request from roughly 55 percent to 75 percent. DITF did even better, boosting the fraction of those who agreed to the second request to over 80 percent—but only if the avatar making the request was white. If that avatar was black, the response dropped to 60 percent, which was statistically indistinguishable from the control.

Since the DITF method depends on subjects' perception of the one doing the asking, the obvious conclusion is that black avatars are viewed as less appealing than white ones. The virtual world not only recapitulates social manipulation, but also social problems. The judgment directed towards the avatar's color is even more surprising, given that allows its users to change their avatar's appearance instantly.

The authors don't seem to know whether to celebrate the finding, since it opens up new avenues for pursuing social research, or to condemn the fact that racism has been dragged from the real to virtual worlds. The recognize that there is an alternate interpretation—namely, that people judge users for having chosen to use a black avatar, rather than for being black—but don't find that alternative any more appealing.

Social Influence, 2008. DOI: 10.1080/15534510802254087

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