“Why are Newbies White?”: Discussing and Designing Race in a Teen Virtual World

Yasmin Kafai, Melissa Cook, Deborah Fields

“Just today I realized something. The first face you get in Whyville is Caucasian… don’t you think you should get to choose what skin color you want to have when you first enter Whyville?” This message was posted by MooCow92 on June 20, 2004, in a newspaper article within Whyville.net, a virtual world with over 1.5 million registered players aged 8–16. MooCow92’s critique of the practice of assigning peach faces to new members was echoed by many other players in the following years, eventually resulting in a response from the game’s designers: The default head for new players became blue instead of peach. This not only resulted in a new Whyville slang term, “bluebie,” but also changed the dynamic of self-representation within Whyville.

In this paper, we will address issues of race, identity, and virtual representation of self in Whyville. Whyville offers a particularly promising context in which to examine racial self-representation because players themselves create and sell all the available avatar parts. In addition, players have a public forum, The Whyville Times, in which to present and respond to thoughts on race in avatar design. These discussions come at a particularly critical time period for Whyville’s teen players, who are exploring and defining their own sexual and racial identity (Kroger, 2000), so the tools available for the representation of self have significance for teens’ identity formation (e.g., Turkle, 1984; Gee, 2003). A small number of previous studies have documented racial stereotyping found in the limited avatar choices in offered within commercial games (Everett, 2005; Leonard, 2003), but researchers know very little about how race impacts the experience of minorities in the new generation of virtual worlds like Whyville and Teen Second Life, which rely on player-generated content.

We examined the ways in which issues of race and diversity were articulated in Whyville, focusing on four data sources: public postings in The Whyville Times about race in avatar design, player-generated avatars, designer’s responses to players’ critiques, and videotape of teen players designing and discussing their avatars. Our analyses of public postings and available avatar parts confirm that virtual communities mirror the racial issues present in society, including social ostracism and unequal access to representational tools (Nakamura, 2001). On the other hand, our analysis of designers’ responses to MooCow92’s complaint about peach-skinned newbie faces illustrates that these worlds are designed and therefore are malleable. The change of the default setting to a blue-skinned face may seem trivial at first, but leaves the player a choice of who to become. The video analysis helps us understand the way that individual players perceive and make use of the resources they have available for racial self-representation online. With the advent of player-generated content in virtual worlds, power, responsibility, and an opportunity for activism have shifted from game designers to players (Jenkins et al., 2006), and at least some players—such as MooCow92—recognize this shift.

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