When prejudice infiltrates the virtual world

Because Second Life carries the aura of an idealized world, we may develop the illusion that, while connected, we are protected from the main prejudices of the atomic world – except, perhaps, if a griefer crosses our way. The reality is though that we are not. How generalized is bigotry in SL? I haven’t heard of any specific research about this subject, but maybe someone has already measured it. Anyway, it seems that there’s evidence here and there that discrimination is not irrelevant in the virtual world.

A robot and his mature human friend
A robot and his mature human friend in SL

Back in March, I read on Heimo Blog about a gay couple who was told not to dance together “up front” and, instead, was asked to move to a more secluded area of the sim because that was a straight place. I found more details on the case on Cryssie Carver’s blog and on a post by Cajsa Lilliehook published on It’s Only Fashion. Of course, it led to a controversy on SLUniverse, with people for and against the sim owner’s right to establish the rules he wanted on his land. That’s not my point here, though, and I don’t mean to crucify anyone either. The sim owner has apologized and I don’t intend to add even more intolerance to that discussion. I’m just taking this episode as a point of departure for a reflection on what world we have been building in SL and on what world we may desire to build.

It may be just an impression, but it seems to me that when I joined Second Life, back in 2007, I could find a wider diversity of avatar shapes and ages. At least, they were more likely to exist. Now, with mesh clothes and bodies, the “average avatar” became even more favored than before – at least if we are talking about human avs. And what’s considered average in the virtual world, let’s stress it, is mostly the young, athletic, muscled or, in some cases, idealized thin bodies that are more easily found across different sims. To be fair, if you search for “chubby” on Second Life Marketplace, you will even find a certain number (small but maybe not that insignificant) of female avs, human or not, that correspond to such description, but only a very restricted quantity of male avs, and rarely a mesh one. Clothes to fit them? That’s another headache. This is a case in which the ideal world, created as a virtual reality, instead of increasing our possibilities, actually reduces diversity.

The mummy greets the wolf: diversity in SL
The mummy greets the wolf: diversity

Well, but this is not discrimination, it’s just a market phenomenon, right? In other words: couldn’t the small supply of chubby avatars be explained by the reduced demand for them? Probably, yes, but what I’m arguing here is that, behind such a supply and demand dynamic, there may lie a prejudice that sometimes comes to the surface without people even noticing. It seems to me that this is the case with Bid Me Bubba, carried on last May as an activity on behalf of Relay For Life of Second Life (RFL of SL), a fundraising event for the American Cancer Society. On its poster, we are informed that the average (to SL standards) Marina “has to stay” as Bubba for one day, for every L$ 5,000 donated to the campaign. Bubba, in that case, is a fat avatar that, for his pose and leather clothes, looks like a stereotyped gay bear-type man. We should notice that there is a somewhat similar activity related to RFL of SL, called Bid Me Bald, in which a person accepts to go bald for some time in exchange for a certain amount in monetary donations. The idea is that, while raising funds, the person will make a “sacrifice” (the one of being hairless) as tribute to those who lose their hair because of cancer treatment. So, trying to draw a parallel, transforming into Bubba is Marina’s sacrifice, then? And whom exactly is she paying tribute to?

Woman and furry avatar playing Scrabble
Woman and furry: despite the different shapes, they can play the same game

There is a certain controversy about allowing or not some avatars to enter a theme-oriented sim. Could gay couples be barred from straight regions? How about women from gay male nude beaches? Child avatars from dance clubs? Furries from human places? Where can we draw the line?

From where I’m standing, I’d say that it’s fair that sims dedicated to roleplaying require visitors to adjust to it or leave. For instance, a place that emulates 1920s Berlin or Chicago may exclude furries, fairies, satyrs and other fantasy creatures, as well as cyborgs and such. Birds or dogs could fit the scenery, but wolves or pandas wouldn’t – so, ok, instead of making a long list of what’s allowed and what’s not, it’s easier to establish that visitors have to be human and that they should follow a 1920s dress code. Under that same reasoning, a cyberpunk futuristic sim may exclude Victorian-era avs, an urban roleplaying environment may not admit angels and demons, medieval sims may not welcome tinies and so on.

It feels different from all those cases to find a straight club that bar gay people or the opposite, a gay place that excludes straight avatars. Being gay or straight is not just a matter of roleplaying. Even though someone may play a character with a different sexual orientation or a different gender than theirs, being a straight person in a straight venue is not like playing a fairy in a fantasy sim.

A tyny penguin and a monster spider avatar
A tiny and a monster avatar: creatures of different nature coexisting in SL

It’s also understandable to bar child avatars from adult sims where adult stuff may actually happen. Even if the person behind the child av is an adult, it can be argued that one does not want to stimulate the idea of depicting in the virtual world scenes that would be illegal or at least problematic in the atomic world. Also, one could require that avatars that go to family oriented sims behave according to the maturity level of the place. It’s not a matter of dispute, and actually Second Life’s Community Standards and Linden Lab’s Terms of Service already regulate both the access to regions according to maturity levels and the kinds of content that are allowed to display. On the other hand, I simply see no reason at all to exclude an overweighted avatar from going anywhere, as long as they comply with the dress code and maturity level of the sims that they would like to visit – and certainly no reason to mock of them as if they were just a ridiculous existence, a major sacrifice in a world of Greek beauties.

Girl and lycan
Girl and lycan: good friends

Let me be clear about it: I’m not discussing here if someone has the right or not to do whatever they want with their land as long as they comply with the Terms of Service and the Community Standards. My point is that, even if we observe all the rules, sometimes we may easily reproduce in Second Life the prejudices that we find in the atomic world. For those of us who actually care about it, isn’t it time to examine our conduct in the virtual world and ask ourselves what we are doing? If we aren’t excusing our prejudices by covering them up with our most noble intentions, like raising funds for a charity or creating a safe environment for people who already face bigotry in the atomic world?

In order to conclude with a positive perspective, I’d like to mention an initiative by Cupric Router that points to the opposite side, away from prejudice. Cupric works in SL as a DJ and founded Mosaic Guild Events, which he describes as “a group for individuals, clubs, event venues and organizations that are interested in participating in and promoting diversity and inclusiveness”. On those bases, events posted on Mosaic Guild “are welcoming of all individuals, regardless of gender, race, nationality, language, sexual orientation or avatar appearance”. It seems to me that that’s the way to follow.

All that said, I’ll end this post referring to the way it started, with a gay couple dancing:

Randy and Ricco dancing at home
Randy and Ricco dancing at home

11 thoughts on “When prejudice infiltrates the virtual world

  1. This post really struck a nerve of mine having to do with sexism and ageism. I haven’t been on SL very long — just 10 months — but I’m hanging on to all my prim clothes because they fit my imperfect-but-preferred older-womanly shape. Mesh standard sizing is the same kind of tyranny we women face in RL when it comes to body image. I have to set my body fat to 5 or below to fit a standard medium. If I go to large, my breasts have to be around 72. Alphas allow designers to be lazy when it comes to fit, imho. I’ve almost completely stopped buying clothes. Okay, I feel better. Thanks for listening.

    1. No, thank you for your contribution to the debate, Glory Be. I think that fitted mesh or liquid mesh clothes at least partially solve that issue, for they adapt better to your body settings. Nonetheless, not all designers offer them (for they are a bit harder to make). Now, if liquid or fitted mesh works for clothes, it has more serious limitations when it comes to mesh avatars. For sure, mesh avatars adapt to your body settings, but, if you take male avs as an example, they are all muscular, in a way that some settings just don’t look right.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this, it’s always a pleasure to read a well thought out discussion that doesn’t denigrate into name calling and finger pointing, and instead gives us a chance to reflect on many aspects of SL. It is up to all of us to challenge the things we see in our virtual world if we don’t feel comfortable with ” how things are”. It should make no difference whether they directly affect how we live our SL lives or whether we see such inequalities they should be acknowledged and addressed.

  3. Good post, Ricco. You ask a good question with regards to the reconciliation between what a region owner designates as acceptable or not, and what a visitor’s rights and responsibilities are with respect to that region owner’s wishes, when you ask: “Where can we draw the line?”

    If I may offer a suggested line: The issue comes down to choice.

    When considering the places we visit in Second Life, we need to remember that the owner of that region is choosing to make that region available on an “abide by my rules” basis. These rules may at times run counter to a visitor’s personal choices, but this doesn’t necessarily mean enforcing these rules are either discriminatory or prejudiced.

    It’s important to distinguish between the choices we have in life (and Second Life) versus the choices we do not have.

    We have the choice to wear clothes or be nude in public. This is similar to the choice to use a child avatar (when children are not allowed in SL). Or the choice to be a tiny fairy. Or the choice to be a demon. Or the choice to be a furry. Or a giant or vampire. These are choices people make (for whatever reason), nothing more.

    With that being said, when you pit a visitor’s choice against a region owner’s choice – it is the responsibility of that visitor to abide by the region owner’s choice. When a visitor choices to stay in a region, that visitor is effectively giving up some of their personal choices in order to abide by the choices made clear by region owner. If they choose not to abide by those rules, then they can choose to leave. It’s really that simple, and it works. It would be the same, for example, if that region owner then became a visitor at another region – they would then have to abide by that region owner’s rules.

    On the other hand, there are aspects of ourselves that are not up to us. We can’t choose our ethnicity (even if we choose different characteristics in SL, we still remain our ethnicity in RL). We can’t choose our psychological gender. We can’t choose our sexual preference. Because we can’t choose to be these things, it follows that we also cannot choose to “un-be” them. Therefore, it crosses the line when a region owner expects their visitors to act straight when gay, or feminine when masculine, or white when black. That line is in fact made clear in the Second Life Community Standards – that is the line we all agreed to live in when we signed up for Second Life.

    1. Hi, Becky, thank you for your comment. I think that’s a good way to try to establish the line between the legitimate requirements made to the visitors by someone who is paying (and paying a lot) for having a parcel or even a region in SL and the actual prejudices that should not be admitted even if we resort to the argument that someone is paying for the land. It seems to me that this perspective has been lost, for instance, by many who participated in the discussion that happened on SLUniverse.

  4. I play SL for me, and I am probably a lot like you, being gay and liberal. However, if I can play SL according to my desires and prejudices, then I have to accept that others may play according to their hate. The difference in RL and SL is that in SL, we can truly walk away from whatever we don’t like. I am sure that this is not 100% accurate but it works in most situations. SL reflects RL in that we don’t really think outside the box when we are in SL. We bring our RL selves and we can’t escape who we are, at least not too quickly. The homogenization of SL reflects the homogenization of RL. Just see how many people want an open kitchen floor plan, stainless steel appliances, and granite counter tops and its easy to understand why we want to be hot and sexy in SL. But, you risk losing the really cool part of SL, its diversity and creativity, if you don’t try to have an open dialog with all kinds of people.

    1. Thank you for adding to the discussion. That’s it, one can choose to play in their comfort zone or not, and to invest more or less in diversity. About accepting that “others may play SL according to their hate”, I’d just like to remember that it’s clearly stated on SL’s Community Sdandards that “combating intolerance is a cornerstone” of the community. It’s also worth remembering that “the Community Standards sets out six behaviors, the ‘Big Six’, that will result in suspension or, with repeated violations, expulsion from the Second Life Community” – and intolerance is on the very top of the list.

  5. I come to this post late, but how happy I am to have found it now, Ricco. You have provided an intelligent and sensitive ground for one of the most important and balanced discussions I have found on this topic. I adore Second Life in part because of the diversity I find here, but agree with the points that you and your readers have made concerning how prejudice sneaks in – a reflection of life in the atomic world.
    Second Life is both a mirror of that other world we also share, and a window into the kind of world we can choose to make. Let us hope – and act – to make a world in which all are welcomed and respected. In such a world creativity, generosity, and adventure shine. Challenge can be deeper and more meaningful when those we meet who are different from ourselves are honoured as those who can teach us and expand our horizons…both the horizons that rest within us and those that lay before us in the outer worlds, both virtual and otherwse.
    Thank you, Ricco, for this post and for all you bring to share here. It is most appreciated.

    1. It’s not late at all, Mireille. Stating that “Second Life is both a mirror of that other world we also share, and a window into the kind of world we can choose to make” sounds to me like a very good way to describe the possibilities we have before us when we engage in SL. No need to thank me – quite the opposite, I should thank you for adding to the discussion. Actually, everyone here has been great: agreeing or not with me and with each other, they have presented their arguments, no name calling, nothing like that. Thank you and many thanks to all who have left their replies.

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