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Digital Depictions of Our Identity

Published May 28, 2023
Published May 28, 2023
8machine_ via Unsplash

The physical world limits what people can do. Without tools and machines, people can’t stay underwater for long periods of time, and they cannot fly. In the internet of the future, we’re limited only by our imaginations. This immersive Internet experience is already lauded as a utopian dream, where people fully control their identities, with virtual worlds allowing complete freedom of expression—or so advocates claim. However, virtual worlds are not limitless. People can do whatever is programmed to be possible. If a person wants to select a color for their avatar’s shirt, for example, then they can only choose among the colors programmed into the game or world. If the only three options are the primary colors—red, yellow, or blue—then you cannot choose green. There’s nothing intrinsically problematic about limited choices. Problems arise when we look closer at which choices are limited. While some games or virtual worlds allow users to be nonhuman creatures, virtual representations of human beings hinder the digital representation for some groups of people.

Inaccessibility limits people through movement, communication, and finances. All of these limitations could become more accessible in virtual spaces. Whereas in older buildings in cities like New York frequently lack elevators, virtual worlds could easily transport people anywhere that the programming allows. Further, money, resources, and space hinder people from possessing all the clothing and accessories they might like, but virtual spaces allow people to store more items, which are generally more affordable.

These scenarios set up virtual worlds and the metaverse to sound idyllic. But so far, it fails to deliver even a reasonable amount of worthy options. The prototypes presumably needed to be simple, while working on basic functionality. But the basic ideas about representation should not surprise anyone; we’ve been discussing this in relation to movies, photography, and fashion for quite some time. For virtual spaces to work successfully, a diverse array of representation should be built into them from the beginning, and this requires speaking to people about what they want for their identity in the metaverse. At the moment, people with disabilities are basically not included; some types of physical features, such as ethnic hair types, are not represented well; and lastly, most avatars are hyper-sexualized or hyper-masculinized. A distinction between virtual spaces designed to mimic the physical world and those fantasy spaces populated with nonhuman beings needs to be considered, as they may pose different contexts for representation. But virtual worlds with human avatars, whether they are fantasy or not, ought to contain a diversity of features, as the following three examples reveal.

People who don’t use a wheelchair might naively assume that anyone who does would want to avoid one in a virtual world. While it’s possible some people feel that way, most virtual worlds fail to provide the possibility of a wheelchair, making the choice for everyone. Wheelchairs represent only one type of disability, but the obviousness of their exclusion speaks loudly about this overlooked area of human society.

Skin tones and hair types are not accurately depicted in the metaverse. If they have the correct color codes, even amateurs can alter the colors on many websites and other applications. Yet these are restricted for avatars, despite the obvious observation that skin tones vary widely. Perhaps, for beta testing, it was (and will still be) useful, but people want to represent themselves in virtual spaces without being forced into a different skin. If a goal is for people to create their virtual identity exactly as they wish, then we need to make the effort to create features that help people represent themselves.

Avatars, more often than not, depict overly sexualized versions of people. “In the case of male avatars, they are more and more often hyper-masculinized,” according to Union Avatars,  “perpetuating social standards of how a man should be physical: tall, thin, and muscled.” For women, they frequently present impossible body types. “Video games like Bayonetta or Lost Ark reveal a hypersexualized female representation with an hourglass figure, oversized breasts, and a childish face.” These stylized depictions of men and women, without any other options, do not allow people to represent their physical bodies accurately in a digital environment.

People may disagree about some of the details for working toward a more equitable society. But preventing people from representing themselves accurately is the most basic step toward any version of the goal. In a recent article, Kish Lal cites Lizzy Bowring, Professor at the Digital Fashion Group Academy, who says if we want to create an inclusive metaverse, then we must first “get it right in real life.” Considering we haven’t gotten it right, or even a close approximation, maybe we could take the opposite approach. Christopher Reardon says, “According to the CDC, 26% of Americans have a disability (61 million or 1 in 4 people), and yet only 2.8% of characters on-screen are disabled.” If the metaverse is a tool, then perhaps people can use it to promote inclusivity in the physical world by allowing a more inclusive representation of reality. As different types of people become more visible, it helps people to become more accepting.

In a previous article, I discussed why it is important to bring beauty into the metaverse while disentangling it from exploitative beauty standards. That article addressed the broader question, but it was incomplete without discussing specific instantiations. And this article complements that one by exploring how the virtual representations that are currently available for people lack many crucial aspects of how people want to identify themselves.

To conclude this essay, I want to add a word of caution. While hoping for an inclusive metaverse through wider and more accurate representation, people need to also consider carefully how they represent themselves. Something may be possible, but that does not make it good. As virtual spaces grow in popularity, people will experiment with their digital look. That’s what many predict, and believe will be a good thing. In the virtual world, as in the physical world, we must ask whether we can really represent ourselves any way we want to online. Blackface and cultural appropriation, for example, are obvious things to avoid. These ethical considerations have been largely under-discussed. People focus on the pizazz and the freedom, yet we can’t avoid talking seriously about the potential for harm.


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