Bayern 2 - Zündfunk

Opinion The Metaverse AND Diversity are our future - and I think that's beautiful

“Metaverse” and “Diversity”. Two buzzwords that are seemingly impossible to ignore if you don’t live under a rock. And chances are, you’re pretty sick of hearing about either of the two. Well too bad, because I like both and I’ll also tell you why they should be best friends forever.

Von: Dorjee Lhamo Gerhard

Stand: 31.05.2022

Dorjee Lhamo Gerhard schaut nach links | Bild: Dorjee Lhamo Gerhard

Combining the two worlds “Metaverse” and “Diversity” has become daily for me, not only in private but especially at work. I’m a (former) host and author of Workin’ Germany - a journalistic Instagram project by the Bayerischer Rundfunk to gloat themselves with diversity - and a Junior Creative Concepter at Jung von Matt NERD - an agency to curate new pop culture and worlds beyond your commoner’s imagination. As the discourse surrounding the metaverse as well as the topic of diversity is still pioneered in English spaces, this opinion piece is going to use its endemic language - plus a lot of slang and sarcasm.

So for starters, lets define those two terms that are almost equally flaky in their definition.

Grasping the individual

Diversity is a dimension in which different variations of characteristics referring to a person intersect. It’s multi-layered and multi-faceted, as we consist of various traits that make us unique and are comprised of different things that shape our identity. Those characteristics differentiate us but also help us bond.

Examples are race, age, gender, physical abilities, faith, sexual orientation, socio-economic class, cultural background, etc. When talking about the topic of diversity in certain contexts, it’s about empowering people in those intersections of diverse characteristics - and when we deviate from what society has deemed “the norm“ - we face discrimination. The goal is not to “not see differences“, but to not treat others badly because of them. We are all different, quite frankly so much so, that I can see it at first look. That isn’t the issue. It’s about appreciating people for what makes them different.

Onto the metaverse

Mark Zuckerberg presents the "Metaverse"

Mind you, this is the only truthful and honest explanation of what the metaverse is because obviously, you should always trust everything a stranger on the internet says - “irony off“. So, the metaverse is an approach to the next stage in our online lives. Yet it is not an entirely new thing and has already existed in various forms for years. It also is not a game and not a place but it is many worlds. But looking at the metaverse of the future, one that is interoperable, it consists of several key factors that metaverse stans can agree on.

Firstly, it will be large-scale in terms of environment, experiences, and people. We’re not talking about hundreds of people but millions, not talking about one world but multiple. Secondly, it’s always on, it is persistently shared and open. It’s a playground for creators of any kind - from the kid next door to the Zuck from Meta. It will give a damn about being bound to a specific device but instead be accessible through any interface. And lastly, it has the unprecedented transformative power to shift human behavior online. Because the metaverse is a 3D space in which we’ll manifest ourselves as avatars. With which we will express not one of our personalities, but all of them. Being a different individual-self for different occasions.

And that last point is the one I am going to rave about today.

The metaverse can still be seen as a blank slate. A canvas that represents the opportunity to build a digital realm that amplifies diverse voices and represents inclusive backgrounds.

Yet the canvas does not come out of nowhere. To start drawing on it, it first has to be produced. And if we look at the developers of said canvas, we have the same issue as in every tech space. Founders, designers, and programmers are overwhelmingly male and white. Not to say that this is a bad thing, just stating that those people have shaped the real world for years. Movements like #BLM and #MeToo have proven that those in power do not always act in everyone’s best interest. Now once again, people with similar traits are the ones putting the rules in place for a new digital world.

But wait, the metaverse is here to be shaped by everyone right?

Well, yes - and also no. At least not yet. Unlike Mario Maker and many other games where level-making and world-building are made simple and accessible, we are not quite there yet when it comes to the metaverse. It still needs quite some tech skills and programming knowledge to have an impact in the metaverse with your own creations. Thus brands and companies are willing to invest big money to create “awesome, exclusive and one of a kind experiences“ for the avant-guard internet user.

In the 2021 Fair Play Summit talk, Ashley Scott and Laura Higgins from Roblox explain how making world-building accessible for everyone will be the first true step to create an inclusive and divers metaverse. Where content and environments are made to represent diverse voices by said voices.

But how diverse does world creation really need to be when character customization is the true peak of virtual individuality?

The Institute of Digital Fashion (IoDF) released a report in 2021 specifically focusing on avatar creation within gaming called “My Self, My Avatar, My Identity: Diversity and Inclusivity within Virtual Worlds”. IoDF suggests that digital avatars do not accurately represent user identities online and breaks down the surveys research from digital consumers about their racial, gender, and identity experiences online.

One user states: "Not being defined by the skin color is such a white concept in the first place. BIPOC don't want to be ashamed of their skin color or hide behind a different identity. They specifically want representation, respect and acceptance, not abandoning their identities.“

“Where are you really from?“

BIPOC are often times painfully aware of their identity as their surrounding constantly reminds them of it. Like being confronted with the “where are you really from?“ question. The first character I resonated with onscreen was Spinellifrom the Disney animated series Recess. But I was told on more than one occasion that I “can’t be her, because she is Italian and I am Asian“. Over time I gave up on looking for people who look like me and just accepted that Eurocentric beauty standards where the ones I had to measure myself with as well. So when the opportunity to create my first virtual avatar presented itself, I made a white one.

Today though, I use every occasion to try to connect with the culture I felt I had to reject in order to fit in. Now it is about standing out and highlighting your features, yes even celebrating yourself because of them. Online and offline. Phenomena like Second Life - a highly successful online only 3D world from 2003, in which avatars do the kind of stuff real people do but better looking - have shown that users take advantage of character customization to the maximum. Whether they choose to enhance or expand on their existing features, or live a life far away from their current reality, is a question of how free we feel to do so in either world.

If the metaverse is supposed to be an added layer to our existing lives, representation matters.

How can it be a virtual reflection of the real world if it doesn’t reflect our intersectional characteristics? In the best-worst-case it would just be Sims 4 but more interactive.The interviewees from the IoDF survey found a consensus in virtual worlds not doing enough to simulate and inspire their users. As options are limited, people’s imaginations are too. It should be a (conscious) decision - a question of choice - whether you want to be accurately represented by your avatar or just click on “the blue skin“ to circle around the issue. By default, it should be up to the players, not the developers to choose between impairments, culture, actual body shapes or to create fantasy versions.

There’s no easy solution to this type of representation, as it is oftentimes inconsistent and in conflict with itself.

But so are our real-life identities, we are different contradicting personas - all at the same time. Whether we’re with colleagues or out for a night at the theater (if that thing still exists), we behave and look differently. This mechanic is easily transferred to the metaverse, as we will use different and quite frankly improved versions of ourselves for different events.

The study also highlights the continued need for developers to do their own ongoing research. As people of one group cannot speak for people of another, consulting of minorities should have a higher importance in any development process. Especially when it comes to disabilities, they should not only be visually represented but also need built-in customization options like text-to-speech audio and alt-text.

The queer community too, is highly underrepresented in virtual spaces.

What Facebooks "Metaverse" could look like

It’s not only about sexual orientation but also about pronouns. While any decent person should be more than capable of remembering a name + pronouns, it doesn’t seem that way IRL. But Will pronouns be easier online?  Well yes - as there could be playful digital ways to display pronouns. But also no - as many interviewees are afraid of facing discrimination if they publicly label themselves out of the binary - too tired to justify their existence in this world and a virtual one.

When it comes to gender, the options often enforce a binary. By default, characters usually start out with the perfect six-pack and that shady-detox-juice bikini body. To quote the study: “People are demanding new customisations that aren't centered around Eurocentric, capitalist ideas of what people should look like, and that are as diverse and uniquely shaped as the individuals engaging and using them.“ Showing that the awareness for the connection between defaults and what is deemed the norm is present. Perpetually presenting a hegemonic image as the start of everything is taking away visibility from minorities and enforcing the idea that this is the standard for at least this industry.

Misrepresentation can cause alienation and harm to users, as it is not only a form of othering but also can perpetuate stereotypes, which in turn build fruitful grounds for discrimination.

This industry has the chance to be interoperable, inclusive, and inventive. By highlighting marginalized voices and consulting the people who are most affected by social injustice, we can foster an environment that is truly diverse.

Diversity has to be at the heart of change, from creator to consumer. It’s not too much to ask for accuracy and fantasy within a space that is praised for its limitless possibilities. I for one want to see sublime physical features, insane fashion (under)statements, and body modifications that scream surrealism.

The metaverse has the tools and capacity to be the leading change and a space unlike any other for marginalized people to express themselves.

To conclude this written TED Talk, like diversity, the metaverse is going to be ever more immersive, ever more social, ever more expansive. They should be bffs because they go hand in hand when it comes to being increasingly important and increasingly individual. People can’t shut up about them because they are inherent parts of our future - and I think that’s beautiful.

The metaverse is an opportunity for change unlike any other. And I for one, do not want to miss it.