The way racial minorities are protrayed in video games versus open space virtual worlds are extremely different, as noted by Lisa Nakamura in her article Neoliberal Space and Race in Virtual Worlds. Although concise, Naakamura’s article touches on the important differences of racial representation in World of Warcraft and Second Life. Being an avid user of both programs, I was intrigued by the comparison of minorities within these spaces.
Nakamura first considers racial minority in World of Warcraft, noting that all races, regardless of minority or majority status among users or the franchise’s folklore, receive unique benefits that impact game play but that are specifically designed to be equally viabile within the combative virtual world of Azeroth. Each racial bonus is tied into the designed cultural identity of each of the various races and while they all have specific racial backgrounds that determines a player’s capabilities in terms of factions and classes (combat roles), the cultural identity permeates all interactions the user has within the game, from speech to gestures to movements.
The problem with this, as Nakamura discusses, is that due to the highly structured nature of video games like World of Warcraft, the user has little imput into the design of the cultural identity of their character. They can choose physical features from a minimal list of options but are forced into specific protrayals of ethnicity upon selecting a race. Some of these protrayals reference actual cultures in stereotypical ways; Trolls are satirized stereotypes of people native to Jamaica, a thinly veiled reference to cultural ‘blackness’ and Tauren strongly rely on tropes that are normally associated with native cultures across North America.
By utilizing actual racial minorities as a basis for some of the in-world races, Blizzard is associating the respective minorities with these virtual racial representations. Nakamura extends this example to point out that while stereotyping the races involved, Blizzard is empowering the minority in the virtual world by affording them equal capabilities and resources as the other races in the game. Trolls and Tauren receive cities, classes, and racial benefits that make them as preferred for certain combat roles as the races referencing visible majorities, such as Humans; a Tauren’s racial bonus, Warstomp, made them one of the top choices for users wanting to ‘tank’ (be the central target for attacks from enemies while the rest of the group worked to defeat the attacker(s)). Minorities are not under priviledged in World of Warcraft, leading to a virtual world where racial equality is relatively achieved by design, especially when compared to the actual world and to virtual worlds where users decide the power of minorities.
In Second Life, Nakamura expresses concern over the treatment of visible minorities by other users. As I documented in my research paper’s literature review, many examples exist of users donning non-caucasian skins and finding friends and strangers alike treated them very differently. Unlike the structured and policed worlds of video games, virtual worlds are open to the determination of the users within them. This leaves them exposed to the same social inequalities as in the physical world, where a visible minority will receive different treatment from others. Although Nakamura doesn’t explore this too much, I think that since there is such a strong societal push to conform to the idealized caucasian representation within Second Life (as noted in my earlier blog post on avatar separation), choosing to be a visible minority or non-human avatar draws more attention than in the physical world since users are free to design their avatars anyway they wish. This freedom serves as a benefit and a curse as users are judged by their choices to conform or not conform in addition to the judgement of their avatar’s appearance.
The freedoms of choice and design compound the issue of racism in virtual world environments. By giving more control to the users in designing their avatars, high expectations of others develop, whereas limiting options to characteristics that do not change racial identity and going so far as to equally empower all races, the structured worlds minimize racialized interactions, even with the racial stereotyping built into the game world. In the case of racial representation in the virtual world, it seems to me that minorities have the potential to cease being minorities but to be equal. Sadly, the one thing that seems to be an obstacle to that is the user variable unmanaged by design limitations.