A blank slate in the virtual world, the metaverse presents an opportunity to build the digital realm into an inclusive space using diverse voices.

Problematic origins

A 2021 report by the Institute of Digital Fashion and the Circular Fashion Summit suggests that digital avatars do not accurately represent user identities online at this point. My Self, My Avatar, My Identity: Diversity and Inclusivity within Virtual Worlds breaks down survey research from digital consumers about their racial, gender, and identity experiences online.

Respondents to a survey included in the report showed a particular awareness of the underrepresentation of women, disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ community: 70% of survey respondents “expressed that gender representation within virtual experiences was vital to them,” and 60% were “concerned about the increased potential for bullying and discrimination against disabled people within virtual worlds.” As one anonymous respondent wrote, “People with disabilities are definitely an underrepresented social group in both real and virtual spaces. Virtual spaces can fix this problem by shedding new light on underrepresented voices and sharing insight on their stories.”

Respondents indicated an “almost unanimous agreement that skin color should be as diversely represented as possible” and responses reflected a “visible demand for non-gendered clothing” in the metaverse, according to the report. Ultimately, the report’s conclusion indicated consumers value the importance of choice.

Conversation has blossomed since the report’s release. Virtual Humans, a virtual influencer platform, echoed the report’s findings in January 2022 as they relate to the virtual influencer industry’s push for advocacy and inclusiveness. Vogue Business reflected on the report’s consumer opinions in October of 2021, highlighting an overwhelming consumer desire for more body types, gender identities, disabilities, and types of clothing in the metaverse.

WEB Daz3d NFP 3 courtesy of Twitter
Non-fungible people by Daz 3D, courtesy of Twitter.

Fungible progress

On January 4, digital design studio Daz 3D created 8,888 “Non-Fungible People” – avatars created purposefully to balance the prominent white, male influence due to common investor and developer demographics. Daz 3D developers noticed a discrepancy among CryptoPunks NFT sales: avatars that are female, or have darker skin tones, tend to sell for less than masculine and white avatars, despite the fact that fewer female Punks to male Punks exist in circulation: 3,840 to 6,039, respectively. The Daz 3D collection, alternatively, is centered around female and non-binary avatars to balance the white male dominance currently prevalent in NFT collections. These avatars, like others, can be imported into popular games and customized to the consumer’s wants.

Door Labs is creating NFTs and games centered around users with disabilities. Their Wheel Cards project consists of 10,000 “Rollie” Digital Cards: the first collection of wheelchair and disability related NFTs in the world. Rollie card owners can earn-to-play various blockchain wheelchair games on Wheel Games. Coming soon, games will include basketball, racing, and more.

In September, Meta announced that it plans to build the metaverse responsibly, collaboratively, and with wellness, safety and diversity in mind. Meta announced new partners from external institutions in an effort to substantially guide their production with expert voices from different fields and backgrounds. Partnering with Electric South, Women In Immersive Tech, Seoul University, the University of Hong Kong, Howard University, and National University of Singapore will help Meta to support digital story creators, underrepresented groups, incorporate safety and ethics practices, monitor privacy and data use, and consider the history of diversity in IT, respectively. Meta’s Chief Diversity Officer Maxine Williams told Bloomberg that it plans to build the metaverse using lessons learned “from the technology that does exist, as we help to build new technology, which does not yet exist.”

WEB Daz3d NFP 2 courtesy of Twitter
Non-fungible people by Daz 3D, courtesy of Twitter.

Why it’s important

Entertainment Software Association (ESA) CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis spoke with GamesBeat last January, emphasizing the opportunity to construct an inclusive foundation in the metaverse—one that amplifies and attracts audiences of all ages, races, gender identities, sexual orientation, and culture. “Part of what we’re trying to grapple with is what is the metaverse and how are we defining it,” he said.

“Employees are expecting it, and online communities are demanding it. So I think the metaverse has an opportunity to be a reflection of what we want it to be, whether that’s geographic diversity, or diversity on a number of other fronts,” Pierre-Louis continued. Brands will need to take care to build the metaverse responsibly, incorporating diverse opinions and including representative voices for an inclusive foundation in the virtual realm.

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