|May 6th, 2009|
A little bit ago there was a kerfuffle over an event in World of Warcraft that ended with female characters getting bunny ears put on their heads. This post isn’t about that — not directly, anyway.
Rather, it’s about the reaction that many users had regarding avatars, characters, and players, and the divides between them.
The key quote that sets me off is this one from Tobold:
Ultimately your avatar is just a playing piece, and reading too much into his gender or race, and then projecting real world politics onto that, can only be a bad thing.
Unfortunately, even if we wish it to be so (and indeed, much of game design demands that it be so, much of the time) it’s not actually humanly possible.
Essentially, here I am making a narratological case, even though I have frequently argued the other side of this. But boy, avatars is a pretty special case. We have a lot of “specialized hardware” around this in our brains, and avatars tend to trigger a lot of it. For example, the fusiform face area or FFA is a part of the brain that seems to be involved in facial recognition, and also seems to fire off when identifying specific objects with fine distinctions (for example, it fires in birdwatchers when identifying birds, and in car aficionados when recognizing specific makes and models). The interesting thing is that the FFA activates even with iconified faces — with stuff that we just think of as a face.
Many factors have a large and generally subconscious impact on how we interact with people socially, and often those cues are triggered by simple things like facial proportions. It’s long been known that larger eyes in proportion to the face trigger a reaction in humans that makes us consider the face to be “cuter” — it is speculated that this is a response to neoteny, the retention of childlike characteristics even into adulthood. This is also known as “baby-face bias.” Squarer jaws lend a perception of authority; big foreheads, a perception of helplessness and innocence. It is routine for models in fashion photographs to have their eyes enlarged via photomanipulation in order to appear more attractive, but that is simply the same trick that women have been using for centuries with eyeshadow instead. These days you can get the look in a more high-tech fashion.
Baby-face bias is far from the only one of these automatic effects. There’s “savannah preference,” which describes our inherent bias (especially when younger) towards regarding certain types of landscapes as pretty. There’s the MAFA effect, which sees the most average face as the most attractive (check out faceresearch.org for lots more on faces). Similarity to self, gender biases, and even height have been shown to have a dramatic effect on our interpersonal interactions.
This stuff triggers in our brain regardless of whether we’re looking at a cartoon, an avatar, or a real person. (Or sometimes, a bird or a car). It’s not possible to keep these sorts of things out of our avatars. In fact, researchers at Stanford have found that height bias, whereby short folks tend to get dismissed more readily in social situations, carries over into virtual life:
…Yee recruited 50 volunteers, randomly assigned them to short or tall avatars, then instructed them to divide a virtual pool of $100 with another participant — one player would suggest how to split the pot, and the other could accept or reject the offer, with each person getting nothing if offers were rejected. People with tall avatars (three or four inches taller than the stranger avatar) negotiated more aggressively than the short ones, while short avatars were twice as likely as the tall ones to accept an unfair split — $25 versus $75.
Again, the behavior held up in real life. When Yee had the subjects shed their avatars and negotiate face-to-face, sitting down, people who had inhabited tall avatars bargained more aggressively, suggesting unfair splits more often. And participants who had had short avatars accepted less-than-even money more often than the tall ones. How tall the people were themselves became less important, if only temporarily, than the height of their online alter egos.
In effect, our tokens have become rich enough to cause us to subconsciously treat them as people, whether or not we intended it. The magic circle here is quite simply shattered, at a fundamental psychological and biological level. In fact, we can even exploit these these even more: we can “hack the users” by exploiting some of these reactions, in the same way that we exploit classical conditioning with tricks like “ding” sounds. Having distant 3rd person avatars makes people more likely to see them as tokens; having a close-up perspective where you see faces makes you more likely to see them as people — and then this has carry-over effects to things like, say, PvP systems and the harassment that could ensue (since vile mistreatment of victims is more likely to occur on objectified targets…) Or this chilling example of mirror neuron exploitation, which one could easily see used in the future by avatar politicians or demagogues:
For example, in the real world, making eye contact increases your persuasiveness, but you can gaze at only one person at a time. In cyberspace, Bailenson’s lab has found, you can make your avatar seem to gaze at multiple people; they’ll pay more attention than they would in a face-to-face conversation, and be twice as likely to agree with you. In real life, mimicking people’s behavior can persuade them; in cyberspace, where every movement is digitally tracked, you can be a more accurate and subtle copycat. Merely copying someone’s head movements after a four-second delay makes them much more likely to agree with you, Bailenson found.
So, what does this have to do with bunny ears on female avatars? A lot. Bunny ears are an example of classical conditioning: the imagery there has been associated in popular culture for decades now with a particular form of sexualization. We can intellectually try not to have that reaction but we’re really talking about how quickly we move past the conditioned reaction. As game players, we learn to see past the dressing, but the dressing is still in the way, and our automatic reactions happen anyway. It’s far less dramatic than the effect that large eyes or specific animations have, but it is there for a large percentage of the population nonetheless.
The same players who might argue for less social and psychological fidelity with also argue for greater graphical fidelity, and lead us down this slippery slope. The result? We may not want to import real life gender politics into our virtual worlds, but through increasing fidelity, we have done so willy nilly. And this goes for age, race, gender, attractiveness, clothing — anything where we have been shaped by either evolution or conditioning to have predisposed attitudes.
This is properly regarded as a design constraint, not as a matter for debate on blogs. If you choose big-forehead avatars with giant eyes, you are shaping your in-game behaviors just as much as if you choose an RPG combat system versus point-and-shoot. You manipulate whether you choose to or not. (For further reading on some of this from a game design perspective, I suggest Isbister’s Better Game Characters by Design. There are too many books for me to recommend on cognitive biases, mirror neurons, faces, and the like, for me to dig up the links right now).
Finally, if you as a user really want avatars to just be tokens, you probably will need to play ASCII worlds that display avatars as actual tokens, like NetHack. The bug is in your brain’s software, not the MMO software.