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Page history last edited by Chris Forhan 12 years, 10 months ago

New Discoveries in Race Based Societies

by Chris Forhan

I have now spent roughly three months experiencing and interacting in virtual worlds, and with each passing hour that I spend in Second Life, this strange land strikes me as more and more similar to reality. Many stereotypes in the real world exist in Second Life as well. Sociologists describe and analyze interactions with individuals, or in this case, avatars, from two different perspectives: the conflict theorist and the functionalist. Both theories view and scrutinize the world around them in completely different ways. Just like in the real world, I have discovered that negative aspects of our culture, such as racism and discrimination, exist in Second Life as well. Humans and avatars alike base this discrimination on one’s external futures. The way an individual presents him or herself directly relates to the way they will be treated by others, whether they are humans or avatars. One’s outer features lead to first impressions, which are often lasting impressions. In virtual worlds, residents base these impressions on stereotypes which originate in the real world. This link between these two places makes them very alike. Similarities between virtual worlds and reality hamper Second Life from being the predominate form of social interaction between individuals because it cannot distinguish itself from the real world.

James Henslin defines conflict as a “constant struggle throughout society to determine who has authority over what” (Henslin 18). Conflict theorists have very Marxist ideals in that they divide society into two categories, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. “In each society, some small group controls the means of production and exploits those who are not in control” (Henslin 18). These two divisions of society are very contrasting in nature, and they conflict on a variety of levels. The bourgeoisie represent the elite upper class that holds the high positions in society. In contrast, the proletariat symbolizes the lower, working class citizens who serve the bourgeoisie. A class struggle exists between these two groups of people. In his Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx summarizes this class struggle when he states that “all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between exploited and exploiting, between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social development…” (Marx 157). Based on the advantages and benefits granted to the bourgeoisie, an unequal distribution of resources exists between these two groups. Conflict theorists argue that with this class struggle, those with the power work to retain their authority over others, while those without it strive to increase their social standing and attain some of the power in society.

Social class and status directly influence one’s power and authority. Those from a higher status are more likely to be a member of the bourgeoisie, and consequently, individuals from a lower social class make up the proletariat. Typically, minorities constitute the lower class which means that more often than not, they do the hard manual labor for the upper class. This ‘grunt work’ carries with it many negative connotations and stereotypes of the individuals, and such stereotypes influence the way people treat others. According to Yen Le Espiritu, subordinating conditions foster stereotypes which ultimately lead the society to “live it, talk it, embrace it, measure group and individual worth  in its terms, and believe it” (Ferguson 83). Avatars in Second Life are treated differently based on stereotypes and social statuses.

A Second Life avatar’s status or social class typically consists of his or her physical appearance as well as their user profile. These two factors enable other avatars to judge an individual. One’s profile consists of an image of their avatar, their ‘res date,’ or the date in which they began using Second Life, and a brief description of either themselves or their avatar. Based on the quality and depth of this information, residents can form preconceived notions about an avatar before even talking with them. An avatar whose profile indicates that they have been a member of Second Life for a while now will receive more respect and reverence than an avatar that has a relatively young res date. One’s profile indicates just one way in which avatars are discriminated against in virtual worlds

Upon joining Second Life, residents immediately alter the physical features of their avatar. Here is a snapshot taken on Orientation Island where avatars first lean to change their physical features.


The great thing about a virtual world is that one can choose nearly every aspect of their avatar’s look, and residents strive to make their avatar look as hip or as strange as they please. Oftentimes, one’s avatar is in fact a direct representation of the resident themselves, while other times, it portrays an individual’s ideal facade. In his book I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life, Mark Meadows argues that, “Every time someone creates an avatar, they create a portrait, though it may have little to do with who one is in the real world. But this is nothing new with portraits—portraits have always been a combination of realism and the techniques artists use to communicate the subject’s personality” (Meadows 106). A resident’s ‘portrait’ offers a symbol of them, and more often than not, it is the only means by which others have to judge the resident. Therefore, it is essential for one to realize that their avatar will be treated differently based on its appearance. This appearance will likely influence the avatar’s status and social class in Second life. Meadows concludes this portion of his book by stating that “Avatars provide us with social rank, immortality, and influence that extends far beyond where we stand” (Meadows 106). Consequently, stereotypes that exist in the real world regarding appearances hold true in virtual worlds as well.

In my Race and Gender Switch paper, I argued that my avatar, Deklin Windlow, was not treated any differently after I changed his skin color from white to black. I discussed several interactions that I had in world with this new avatar, and based on these experiences, I reasoned to the claim Second Life and the real world are very different because Deklin received little to no discrimination or racist remarks after becoming an African American avatar. Over these past few days I have spent some time in Second Life with my African American avatar and have had new experiences that caused me to pause and rethink my claim. On one such instance, I had just teleported Deklin to a well populated area in Second Life with the hope of gathering additional data regarding my new race. After spending some time in this area, I decided to approach a group of avatars and immerse myself in a conversation. On my way over, a Caucasian avatar exited the circle and began walking towards me. Thinking that he wanted to chat, I got excited and instantly thought that this would reinforce my claim that discrimination and racism are relatively nonexistent in virtual worlds. I was entirely wrong. This avatar never stopped moving. He walked right into me, pushing me to the side. He turned around and came at me for a second time, once again pushing me to the side. At this point I began vigorously typing “stay away!” into my local chat. I managed to dodge his third attempt and teleport myself back to Richmond Island, a place free from racism and discrimination.

I arrived on Richmond Island and stood for a few minutes contemplating what had just happened. As I thought about the event, it reminded me of the violent acts against African Americans during the Civil Rights movements of the 1950s. While this incident by no means compares to what happened during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, I was able to parallel this event to some of those discriminating acts towards African Americans throughout this dark period of American history. In 1957, a group of KKK members seized a black man in Alabama and began interrogating him. They questioned this man about his voting rights, the American desegregated school system, and political leaders. After this interrogation, they castrated the man (Worcester 153). While this doesn’t even come close to being repeatedly bumped into, both incidences involve individuals who deem themselves superior to another and therefore feel the need to subordinate them. The episode in Second Life and the violent act that occurred in Alabama each involve an inexcusable invasion of privacy based on one’s external appearance.

This incident also made me recall Wagner James Au’s blog titled The Skin You’re In. Au describes a resident’s experience after changing her avatar from an attractive Caucasian female to African American female. Resident Erika Thereian was immediately treated differently from both complete strangers and friends. Strangers made it clear that avatars of her race were not welcome in Second Life by making comments such as “’Look at the n***** b****’” (Au) and “’Great, they are gonna invade SL now’” (Au). Her previously loyal friends made little effort to spend time with her and acted weird once she entered a group setting. What strikes me as bazaar is the fact that Thereian didn’t change at all, her virtual character did, and this was grounds for both subtle and obvious discrimination. Contrary to Deklin’s physical abuse, Thereian’s avatar received verbal abuse. Both of these racist acts singled them out based on their skin tone. My experience in Second Life led me to develop the idea that stereotypes exist in virtual worlds just as the do in reality, and individuals make discriminating acts accordingly.  

I have encountered very few minority avatars during my time in Second Life. In fact, it sure feels like the only ones I see are the Metaverse Explorers from the English 103 class. During an in world interview, avatar Whirly Fizzle commented on this fact when she exclaimed, “I think it’s really weird…why aren’t there any!?” (Interview: Whirly Fizzle). Whirly kindly gave me the permission to quote her on any of my English 103 projects. This was her response after I brought up the typically awkward, uncomfortable subject of race in Second Life. I then surprised her by explaining the nature of my study. After telling her that in reality, I was a Caucasian male, posing as an African American avatar to study the rate of racism and discrimination in virtual worlds, she immediately became fascinated by my findings and discoveries. She even said “Actually, when I first saw you I thought...thank God...someone has a black AV!!!” (Interview: Whirly Fizzle). This made me realize that not everyone in Second Life feels the need to discriminate against minorities based on their external appearance. Below shows a snapshot of Whirly and I relaxing on a couch in her mansion while we discuss Second Life, and the use of virtual worlds in general.

 After changing my avatar’s race from a Caucasian male to a vintage looking African American male with an afro, I noticed an immediate difference in the way he was treated by complete strangers. Avatars with whom Deklin interacted were very brief and concise with their responses, if they even chose to talk to him at all after he changed his skin color. On one instance, African American Deklin approached a group of avatars on Help Island with the hopes of finding someone to interview about virtual worlds. Deklin asked several groups of avatars who declined his request before finding Whirly Fizzle. Often times Deklin would walk up a group and the avatars would either not acknowledge his presence, or walk away from him. The snapshot below shows Deklin attempting to converse with a group of avatars, one of which adorned a Batman suit. Upon approaching them, they instantly turned around and walked in the other direction, as perfectly portrayed in the snapshot.

Prior to this transformation, I found avatars to be very helpful and friendly in Second Life. They never hesitated to come to my aid when I asked, and they usually gave me very long, detailed responses to my questions. Needless to say, my opinion of this virtual world changed dramatically after I altered Deklin’s skin color. As a result, my view of Second Life as a utopia, a place free from the negative aspects of modern society, vanished. I now saw it as a place not so different from the real world in which we live, complete with stereotypes, racism, and discrimination.

These situations where my avatar was treated differently based on the color of his skin infuriated me. While racism and discrimination are terrible facts of life, it bothered me more that they existed in virtual worlds than in the real world. It seems ridiculous for people to base judgments about an individual on their virtual character. This reality directly relates with the ideas of the conflict theorist, that in society, one group subordinates another while the other longs to be accepted. With my African American avatar, I longed to be well received by others and find a niche in Second Life, but others sought to repress me based on the color of my virtual character’s skin. Unfortunately, as I have discovered through many interactions in world, stereotypes are an omnipresent aspect of modern civilization. They exist everywhere, making virtual worlds even more similar to our real world. 


In his book Synthetic Worlds, Edward Castronova, refers to the similarities between virtual worlds and reality when he states,

            The institutions of synthetic worlds, their culture of play, are really no different in their essence from the culture of play in our world, and thus it is apparent why their effects cannot be contained in cyberspace: institutions always affect one another, and these effects can cross the synthetic divide as long as people do (Castronova 102).  


By this, Castronova argues that different institutions have direct influences on one another. For example, the real world has an impact on Second Life and visa versa. People carry over their knowledge and experiences from one world to the other. Wagner James Au reinforces this claim in The Making of Second Life when he proclaims,


When you’re in a virtual world engaging with someone else inside it, two realities exist in tandem...you are also aware that other avatars in the same space are puppeteer by other people…[Second Life is] play that sometimes [resembles] culture, romance, commerce, and all other aspects of our offline lives. (Au 5)  


  An individual’s life is one giant network, and all aspects of it relate to one another. This means that Second Life residents take their knowledge and experiences with them into virtual reality.

            In Exodus to the Virtual World, Edward Castronova argues that in the coming years, the opposite will be the case. Before we know it, we will be taking what we have learned and discovered in virtual worlds, and applying it to our real world lives. Castronova argues that virtual worlds like Second Life will soon “start affecting homes and workplaces and governmental affairs” (Castronova 82). Albeit Second Life is in its mere infancy, I have already discovered this occurring. During my Marketing Analysis Project, I explored the corporation IBM, with the objective of examining how this large company uses Second Life to its advantage in the real world. IBM uses Second Life as a supplement to its real world company. Paula Gregorowicz argues that IBM uses Second Life for the many opportunities it offers the company to sell products and services (Gregorowicz).It gains new customers and uses Second Life’s ‘sandboxes’ as places to test out their new products. In world, IBM experiments with new forms of communications, new business models, as well as services it might provide to other companies, all at a relatively inexpensive cost (Nuttall). According to Andrew Baxter, conducting business in virtual worlds gives the entrepreneur “The freedom to fail and the encouragement of risk taking…” (Baxter). Here is an image of one of IBM’s sandboxes.


Before we know it, virtual worlds will have a great impact on our real lives. While this has already begun to take effect in the business world, it will begin to impact other areas of society as well, such as education and economics. 

            While conflict theorists believe that society consists of two clashing groups, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, functionalists explain civilization as many parts that work together to formulate the whole (Henslin 16). Social stability exists when each part works together. Consequently, when one element doesn’t work properly, the whole struggles. This means that all groups of society must work as one. Below is a snapshot taken on Richmond Island of my English 103 group.

As you can see, each avatar from my group portrays a different race or gender. My group represents male, female, Caucasian, Indian, and African American. I believe that we represent progress in virtual worlds due to the fact that we are able to look past our vastly different appearances and focus on what is really important, our personalities. Andrew, Amanda, Jun and I have been working together throughout the past semester and through interacting in both class and Second Life we have become very close and learned a great deal about each other. The four of us represent a variety of races and genders, and it does not make sense for us to judge or discriminate against each other based on our differences both in the real world and in the virtual world. By accepting each other for who we are, and by looking past the exterior and focusing on our internal qualities, we are able to work together much more effectively.

            According to functionalists, society is at its best when everyone, regardless of their race or gender cooperates and works for the betterment of the whole.  One such example occurred during out build-it project. The four of us gathered together in a study room in the Boatwright Memorial Library with the objective of creating a virtual building in which snapshots and links to our wikis would be displayed. We all knew that in order to complete this project successfully, we would have to work together and get along. This was made really easy due to the fact that we did not hold any biases towards one another, and we each had specific jobs with their own job descriptions. By ignoring our external differences and focusing on what is important, our personalities, we were able to create a good looking house in a timely fashion, while having fun in the process. Here is a snapshot taken by our project manager, Jun, of the four of us putting the finishing touches on our earthy “Go Green!” building.


     (Please exucse the poor quality)

Jun granted me the permission to use this photo in my project. Our group perfectly exemplified the functionalist ideals, which I believe ultimately leads to the progress of virtual worlds. Each member of our group worked hard and thoroughly which resulted in the completion of our task.

           While this merely represents one group of four students working together in Second Life, I believe that the future of virtual worlds depends on scenarios like my group’s build-it project where individuals who come from various races, genders, and backgrounds come together to create something extraordinary. By ignoring another’s external appearance, stereotypes and racist remarks will not exist; therefore discriminating acts will be very unlikely. Without such actions, both Second Life and the real world will benefit tremendously by becoming more inhabitable places to live. Second Life, as well as all virtual worlds, will have a great increase in residents due to the fact that prospective members will have little fear of being discriminated against for their appearance and lack of experience in world.

            In a sense, Second Life will profit from becoming less like the real world. Currently, through my experiences and interactions with other avatars in Second Life, I have come to the conclusion that, in their present states, virtual worlds and reality greatly resemble each other. Real world stereotypes and discrimination based on these prejudged labels have transferred from reality to virtual reality, making the two more similar than one might want to imagine. While parallels between Second Life and the real world are not necessarily a bad thing, virtual worlds will not become the ideal form of social interaction in society unless Second Life distances itself from the detrimental stereotypes of the real world.





Au, Wagner J. The Making of Second Life.

     New York, NY: Harber Collins, 2008.


Au, Wagner J. "The Skin You're In." Weblog post. New World Notes. 23 Feb. 2006. 27 Oct. 20008 http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2006/02/the_skin_youre_.html.


Baxter, Andrew. "A leap into the virtual world." Financial Times (February 29, 2008); pg 1. 24 September 2008 <http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=7&did=1437436091&SrchMode=2&sid=2&Fmt=3&VInst=PROD&VType=PQD&RQT=309&VName=PQD&TS=1222370500&clientId=383>


Castronova, Edward. Exodus to the Virtual World : How Online Fun Is Changing Reality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.


Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago P, 2005.


Ferguson, Susan J. Mapping the Social Landscape : Readings in Sociology. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Humanities, Social Sciences & World Languages, 2007.


Fizzle, Whirly. "Interview With Avatar Whirly Fizzle." Online interview. 22 Oct. 2008.


Henslin, James M. Essentials of Sociology : A down-to-Earth Approach. Danbury: Allyn & Bacon, Incorporated, 2006.


Marx, Karl. Selected Writings. Ed. Lawrence H. Simon. Boston: Hackett Company, Incorporated, 1994.


Meadows, Mark Stephen. I, Avatar : The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. Grand Rapids: New Riders, 2007.


Nuttall, Chris. "Virtual mirror on the real world ONLINE SIMULATION: Blue-chip companies are using Second life, the web's immersive universe, to test out business scenarios." Financial Times (December 15, 2006): 10. 24 September 2008<http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?index=3&did=1181129371&SrchMode=2&sid=1&Fmt=>


Worcester, Kenton, Sally Avery Bermanzohn, and Mark Ungar, eds. Violence and Politics : Globalization's Paradox. New York, NY: Routledge, 2001.


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