You’ve probably seen this new Meta demo of podcaster Lex Fridman interviewing Mark Zuckerberg as ultra-realistic avatars while wearing VR headsets. While technically impressive, there’s a small problem: Decades of evidence that few people actually want ultra-realistic avatars mirrored after themselves in virtual worlds, that they undermine a unique value of the Metaverse — and worse, that they import high levels of toxicity into a virtual world's user community.
There is no proven relationship whatsoever between the popularity of a metaverse platform and photo-realistic graphics. The very most popular platforms, Minecraft and Roblox, are intentionally low-fi, immersive through their physics and responsiveness. Their blocky, whimsical avatars are similarly abstract.
The same can be said for the furry and anime-themed avatars of metaverse platforms VRChat, and the hand puppet-like avatars of Rec Room — both of which are so popular on Meta’s own Quest 2 headset, it caused the company to raise the price of the headset.
This preference for non-realistic avatars relates to the core user base for metaverse platforms: People in their teens and pre-teens, who are generally still uncomfortable and unsure about their own real life identity and appearance.
But the problem is even more acute for teen girls and young women, still negotiating the social expectations and judgements around their real life appearance; presenting them with a lifelike avatar to customize — let alone an avatar that resembles who they are in real life — is effectively asking them to shoulder even more social expectations and judgements, just in the virtual world.
The fundamental problem with Meta’s approach is that Zuckerberg, with no prior experience in game development or virtual worlds, apparently believes the Facebook model of real identities online should apply to the Metaverse.
This misses the essential value of metaverse platforms as a place where people can explore, imagine, and create entirely new experiences blessedly separate from real world limitations. Beginning with personal identity.
Overwhelmingly, metaverse platform users do not prefer avatars based on their real real-life appearance — even when the internal tools to customize them that way exist. This preference can even be seen in avatar gender choice. According to a survey of hundreds of thousands of gamers conducted by researcher Nick Yee and his firm, Quantic Foundry, 1 in 3 men prefer to play as a female avatar — with about 1 in 10 females choosing male avatars.
The irony is Mark Zuckerberg could have learned all this from the very person who helped bring the company into Metaverse development:
During his stint as VP of Engineering at Facebook, it was Cory Ondrejka who convinced Zuckerberg to acquire VR startup Oculus in 2014.
Prior to joining Facebook, as regular readers know, Ondrejka was co-founder of Second Life, the first metaverse platform to reach mainstream awareness.
“[Everybody] operating in a world of metaversal punditry comes to assume, you want a single singular permanent identity and you want that singular permanent identity to kind of look like you,” as Cory Ondrejka observes now. “And we know from 50 years of online communities, that that’s wildly untrue. The reality is that people have roles, people have modes of interaction. They don’t want to always show up as themselves either by name or by appearance.”
Second Life also illustrates the social problems inherent with ultra-realistic avatars, encouraging toxic behavior and rampant materialism.
“[That's] where the racism and the sexism comes from," as Yee puts it. “Because when the avatars are sufficiently human to make human assessments upon, our inherent human biases come clawing into the digital world… It's almost unavoidable, because once you have bodies that are anywhere near realistic, people feel the need to dress up their bodies, and to look cooler than the next person. And suddenly you have this whole economy based around selling bodies and hair and body parts.”
All that said, there may be a market for ulta-realistic avatars based on ourselves when the volumetric capture technology scales. In a chat about the video, for instance, my colleague Juliano Wahab suggested they could be a replacement for Zoom — especially for the many times we don’t want to worry about our real life appearance on a video call. (But then again, Fridman casually mentions he had his facial features scanned in a Meta lab for this — suggesting we're many, many years away from this being feasible for average consumers.)
But that’s a very different use case from what we want in a virtual world that transcends our real life limitations. In that context, we want as much as possible to leave our real identities behind.
When we go into the Metaverse, as Nick Yee explains, "a lot of racial norms, gender norms, and sexual harassment follows us in. We shouldn't be surprised by it now.”
But given the company’s track record, I’m not surprised Meta is enabling all that anyway.
Read more about this in Making a Metaverse That Matters.
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