Are virtual worlds doomed to replicate social problems of real life?

Claude Steele came to UW a month or two ago and gave a presentation on stereotype threat and identity threat. Basically, people and society give off cues all the time about their attitudes and prejudices regarding people of certain groups. The people of the affected groups unconsciously internalize the stereotypes being applied to them and, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, tend toward the patterns expected of them. For example (to use one of Claude Steele’s examples), if you give a test to a white kid and tell him while giving it to him that Asians tend to do better on this test, but he should try hard, anyway, the white kid will score less well than if you didn’t give him that social cue. You can imagine the kinds of social cues we give to African-Americans, women, etc. and realize that from the get-go some social groups are at a total disadvantage due to our unconscious stereotypes. Identity threat is sort of like the same thing. Steele’s argument is that people identify with whatever identity is most threatened. So, a black woman might identify more as black or more as a woman depending on her situation (and I think implicit in this is that people’s self-identifications change with different settings).

This got me thinking about the Horde vs. Alliance divide that Blizzard set up. Due to game mechanics, players really do identify with those two factions (more or less, I think depending on their particular server balance or imbalance and ganking experience). In other words, the threat to their livelihoods in-game is most dependent on their faction identification. But I wonder if other sorts of identities are threatened just by virtue of it being a social game and lots and lots of people from a wide range of backgrounds are interacting with each other. T. L. Taylor made a very good argument that it is very hard to separate one’s virtual identity from one’s other (real-world) identities. Given that, do women players still get shafted in online life, etc? (Well, I think it is pretty much a given that women players are treated differently…) What about black players or Asian players? (damn, gold farmers.)

This also got me thinking about Freire and his oppressor / oppressed model (see Pedagogy of the Oppressed). To link the two, people of the dominant culture pretty much get to set which social cues are the norm and continue a subtle form of oppression. In WoW mechanics, whichever faction outnumbers the other on a server are oppressors and the minority faction are the oppressed. Is this true? Do some players not see this but rather see oppression due to their real-world identities? etc.

All this is sort of group level thinking. A friend of mine and I were talking about this and he mentioned that on an individual level, people’s dispositions tend to be amplified online. What I mean is that a jerk in real-life might not be sooo jerky, but once he is online, he is really quite jerky. Likewise, in normal life, some people are nice and all but they don’t tend to go out of their way to help you out, but once they get online, they are really, really nice and voluntarily help out.
Individual level aside, are virtual worlds places where realization of social justice can happen or are they doomed to perpetuate the social issues and tensions of real life?

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