Will I Have a Place in the Metaverse?

The questions we need to ask about identity, representation and access

We've all heard the news by now: The metaverse is going to be the next life-changing internet development. But lost in all the hyperbolic discussions around NFTs and parallel digital universes is something that's a little more down to earth and deeply reflective of who we are: our identities in the form of our avatars. And I'll be honest, I'm not liking what I'm seeing so far.

It's estimated that a quarter of us will spend at least one hour a day in the metaverse to work, shop, attend school, socialize or consume entertainment. Based on that level of participation, you'd think we're motivated to build the metaverse as a more inclusive space, reflective of a cross-section of our society. But going by PR videos and screenshots, this world actually looks astonishingly homogenous. Although we can create avatars with different skin tones, hairstyles and clothing, the range of options still feels disconnected from my real surroundings. Heck, many of the proposed avatar options don't even have legs or feet.

It was very likely that design teams were under pressure and they didn't have time to render legs and feet. But that's an easy thing for me to brush aside as an able-bodied person, who rarely had to worry about my digital avatars reflecting my real-world appendages. As the metaverse slowly takes shape, engineers and designers have to prioritize which features to include or delay in this sandbox. When that happens, who gets to input into this priority list? 

It took years for emojis to come out with different skin tones and hair color. And even then, the closest one that matches my hair color is still a few shades paler than my real-life Chinese skin tone. When I grew up playing Street Fighter and other video games, the character options were disproportionately male and disproportionately muscular. So, when it comes to the metaverse, will I also have to "wait for my turn" before different avatar features trickle out over time?

Fortunately, some of these concerns are being addressed by the latest round of Meta avatar updates, with more face shapes, skin tones and assistive devices to choose from. But even then, can we create an inclusive universe just by manipulating a few pixels? This might all just be a veneer that glosses over some of the same unconscious bias and insecurities we've been living with, only now in a digital manifestation. 

If I'm pressured to look tall and skinny because my real-world environment has overtly and subconsciously incentivized those traits, what's stopping that mindset and pressure from leaking into the digital world? After all, liposuction is a painful, expensive and invasive procedure; shedding a few pounds in the metaverse only takes a few clicks.

I know the metaverse is supposed to be a digital playground, and theoretically, the permutations for self-expression are endless. But we never considered the opposite—that the metaverse could potentially flatten our identities. We end up picking certain eye shapes, body mods and clothes not because it accurately reflects us, but because we can frictionlessly attain something that we've been conditioned to find desirable. If I want to cavort around the metaverse with a Love Island physique, I can.

And what happens when we don't feel free to express our metaverse self in ways that look and behave like our physical self? Could the metaverse become another place where people have to codeswitch in order to come across as more heteronormative, more neurotypical, more able-bodied? Will I be tempted to choose a white male avatar because I have been mansplained to in the physical world and I can't deal with more of that shit in the digital world, too?!

The necessary hardware and VR accessories could additionally create an intrinsic barrier of entry into the metaverse. The pandemic years have taught us there are many people who can't even count on a decent laptop and steady internet connection to work or learn remotely. So it's likely that the people I interact with in the metaverse will be a self-selecting group that's generally more affluent, generally more tech-literate. From that perspective, the metaverse is starting to feel less like a sandbox, and more of a gated community. 

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