'Whose Second Life Is This?' How Avatar-Based Racial Cues Shape Ethno-Racial Minorities' Perception of Virtual Worlds

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Research on social identity contingencies suggests that situational cues, such as a numerical representation of social identities in a given social environment, can trigger identity-associated threat for individuals whose social identity is marginalized. Given that popular virtual worlds (e. g., Second Life [SL]) are often criticized for White-avatar dominance or White bias, we examined the psychological effects of the alleged White dominance in avatar-based virtual worlds by conducting two experiments in which participants read fictitious profiles of SL resident avatars. White and non-White participants were randomly assigned to view either a set of White-dominant avatar profiles or a set of racially diverse ones. After reading the profiles, participants had an opportunity to customize avatars using the SL interface. The findings of Experiment 1 (n = 59) revealed that non-White participants exposed to the White-dominant avatar profiles, when compared with those exposed to the racially diverse profiles, reported significantly lower levels of sense of belonging and intention to participate in SL. Experiment 2 (n = 64) demonstrated that non-White participants exposed to the White-dominant avatar profiles gave significantly higher estimation of the White user population within SL; the data also showed that exposure to the White-dominant avatar profiles resulted in a greater sense of limitation on skin customization among non-White participants than among White participants. The present research suggests that ethno-racial minorities, when exposed to avatar-based cues that signal White dominance, may perceive the virtual world as identity threatening, thereby feeling psychologically disconnected and detached from it. Implications regarding racial/ethnic diversity in virtual worlds are discussed.