Avatars and Representation (Guest Post)

by Jennifer Szende

Before the pandemic, I was already a regular Zwift rider. In a recent women-only group ride, the chat turned to the limited range of available avatars on Zwift. One rider lamented the fact that recumbent bikes and hand bikes are not available as avatar bikes in Zwift, even though a number of cyclists use the game with these and other accessible stationary trainers.

The chat eventually turned to the related question of representation at ZwiftHQ. The assumption was that Zwift HQ must be predominantly male and able bodied, and that (an assumed) lack of diversity in the design room must be at the root of the lack of diversity amongst design elements for avatars. I have no insight into the design room at ZHQ, but I have thought a bit about how digital decision-making is made, and about the pros and cons of more representative avatars.

We know that lack of diversity in a given setting in the real world has detrimental effects on those with marginalized identities. And we also know that the online context does not automatically reproduce real world social contexts. Rather, the online context is an artefact, and it is the product of multiple choices – or, indeed, omissions of choice.

But, we cannot solve a problem if we do not recognize it. Feminist epistemology teaches us that we all make observations, and ask questions, from a situated perspective. From positions of privilege, some of us may make the mistake of assuming that our perspective is shared or universal. It is not. A helpful takeaway from feminist epistemology is that all perspectives are limited, but some perspectives are better situated to recognize these limitations. From positions on the margins, we have better levels of recognition that our perspective is on the margins, and is not universal.

In the design room, false universalizing has implications. The design team has set up a range of options. They presumably have reasons for setting up the avatar choices as they have. But the worry raised by the in-game chat is that some of the choices are merely omissions. The possibility that is troubling me – and was troubling a number of participants in the group ride over the weekend – is that the choices on offer do not seem limited to the design team. If there is no one in the room to alert the design team to the problem, they may be issuing that their perspective is universal. This is where the in-game chat could be useful.

The failure to offer a more diverse set of avatar options is a choice on the part of the game designers. The failure on the part of the designers at ZHQ – whether it is an omission or a deliberate choice – has implications for the choices available to users.

There are social game-related reasons to have a more diverse set of avatar options. It is damaging to women, people of color, and individuals with diverse abilities to feel excluded from the the outdoor and fitness industries. Damaging in the sense of exclusion from fitness, and damaging in the sense of exclusion from community. In this case, users are customers who pay a subscription. And if the game were more diverse, it might be more welcoming to more people. The outdoor industry has been pushed to recognize the problem, but Zwift is an odd hybrid between indoor and outdoor fitness worlds.

There are game-related reasons to include recumbent bikes: they are more aerodynamic on the downhill, but can be more difficult to manoeuvre on the uphill. So, they could offer a game-specific accessibility lesson.

At the user end, it can make you vulnerable to appear as yourself, and it can make you vulnerable to appear different. So, many are faced with a dilemma. It may be safer for many players to opt for a non-representative avatar rather than to out themselves as ‘different’. It can be safer to blend in. Anonymous or pseudonymous social interactions can be protective to those with marginalized identities. Being ‘different’ or appearing as ‘Other’ can make you a target.

Avatars are only ever problematically representative. They may allow affirming options to self-identify in various ways, and to thereby seek out community within the game. They may also create passing privilege and the ability to blend in, to be less vulnerable in the virtual world.

My take? The vulnerability of appearance and avatar choice ultimately has to be made by the user. Zwift is doing us a disservice if our identity is not available as an avatar. But the vulnerability that accompanies representative avatars has to be the user’s choice. A more diverse array of avatar options would allow the user to make the choice.

Jenny Szende is a philosopher, writer, climber, cyclist, mother, and follower of Yoga with Adriene in Toronto. 

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