How virtual reality is used to challenge conceptions of race, beauty, and sexual orientation.



In his book Ready Player One — the basis for Steven Spielberg’s film of the same name — Ernest Cline doesn’t just talk about virtual reality’s potential to isolate people, but also how it can help combat prejudice.

Cline’s hero, Wade Watts, spends much of the book in the Oasis, a virtual world where he meets people who use virtual reality to challenge conceptions of race, beauty, and sexual orientation.

Racism

Watts’ best friend, Aech, is one such example.

Aech chose a white avatar in the virtual world, even though he was not white in real life.

Aech’s mother even proclaimed it to be “the best thing that ever happened.”

She herself was afffected by the marked difference her race made in how she was treated and the opportunities she was given in her professional life.

Through her digital avatar, Aech’s mother overcame implicit bias in the workplace. In this way, she literally and metaphorically code-switches.

Her success opens possibilities for racial relations.

Could this experienced be generalized?

For example, in a virtual environment, employers could interview candidates who use the same template avatar. This way, race would not be able to color employers’ final hiring decision.

Employers could also train staff in racial empathy by having them take on the role of a person of color and see what the world looks like through a different set of eyes. In fact, we are seeing this technology researched and implemented today, and the results show potential.

Homophobia

Although Aech’s mother had personal experience of discrimination herself, she kicked her son out of the house when he came out as gay.

This doesn’t make a difference to Watts, who eventually meets Aech in the flesh later in the book.

After meeting Aech in real life, Watts says that he felt that they had “known each other for years, in the most intimate way possible. We’d connected on a purely mental level. None of that had changed, or could be changed by anything as inconsequential as . . . race, gender, or sexual orientation.”

In virtual worlds, you cannot judge someone for loving the same gender if you do not know their real gender.

Body image

In our Photoshop world, magazines and web sites bombard women with artificial concepts of beauty. Exposure to these images “leads people to treat themselves as objects to be evaluated based on how they look.”

In the genetic lottery, some people get dealt a better hand than others.

This is not true in the Oasis, where users can forge new identities. Take Art3mis, Watts’ romantic interest.

As Watts describes her, Art3mis “seemed to be going for a sort of mid-’80s postapocalyptic cyberpunk girl-next-door look.”

The Oasis helped her find a voice and to be more confident, in spite of a real-world appearance Art3mis herself considered repulsive.

As they interact in the Oasis, their relationship deepens. The two meet in private chat-room sessions at least once a day where they talk for hours. They play vintage board games, watch movies, and listen to music. They discover that they share the same interests, are driven by the same goals, and get each others’ jokes.

“I’d never had such a powerful, immediate connection with another human being before,” says Watts.

This is a similar to the early days of the Internet, where people met in chatrooms and connected on a more thoughtful, emotional level.

Today, many online dating sites focus on appearance. Virtual reality, by creating an opportunity for shared experiences, can help people establish a connection separate from that based just on looks.

This is one of the greatest strengths of virtual reality.

It is as if the bodies we are born with are the masks, and in virtual environments, we can shed these masks, and more intimately know each other without the outside layers.

Terrence Smith

Terrence J. Smith has contributed his writing to nonprofits and both print and digital publications. He enjoys all things technology, but remembers to meditate and appreciate the outside world.

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