How Virtual Reality turned me into a white male

One of the most engaging virtual reality experiences I encountered recently turned me into a white male.

Let me explain.

This July, The Void, Sony Pictures, and Madame Tussauds premiered an interactive new exhibit tied to the new Ghostbusters film. Ghostbusters: Dimension is unique, because it merges physical and virtual realities, allowing visitors to hunt ghosts in the fictional world. Unlike many virtual reality demos I have seen, this one is truly interactive — players strap on virtual reality headsets, proton blasters, and proton packs, which hold the powerful computers needed to make the Oculus Rift experience mobile. My colleagues and I walked — or, more accurately, screamed — our way through the physical and virtual space. The experience felt so real, it got our hearts racing. There was only one problem.

In the physical world, three of us were women. In virtual reality, we all became white males.

Hearing my colleagues’ voices emerge from uniform male bodies was disorienting. I expected we would take on new identities in the virtual world, but I did not expect all four to be the same. The game did not resemble Ghostbusters’ original cast, nor the cast of the recent remake. How did a virtual reality experience, timed with the release of a reboot featuring an all-female cast, default to identical, male avatars? The lack of diversity and the absence of choice made the game feel uncomfortable.

The experience raises important questions about designers of virtual reality and their imagined audiences: who creates virtual reality experiences, for what purpose, and for whom?

These questions are important, because virtual reality is a growing, transformative technology. It is projected to grow to a $40 billion industry by 2020 and could revolutionize the way we learn, experience the news, watch movies, travel, raise money in humanitarian emergencies, and even give birth. Researchers have demonstrated that the emotional and physical response to virtual reality is powerful. With this impact and range of applications, diverse representation is not an option, but an imperative.

Regrettably, virtual reality faces the same shortage of diversity as many other technology fields. Exact figures are not available, but according to my back-of-the-envelope math, approximately 90% of the leadership teams of these virtual reality companies are white and 88% are male.* To be sure, this sample size is limited, and there are certainly many women and other under-represented groups in VR. But the overall observation still stands: as an industry, virtual reality is not demographically nor socioeconomically diverse.

This presents challenges for virtual reality as a technology, as a business, and as a medium for engaging with important social issues.

For example, danah boyd found that men and women have different preferences between approaches for depicting distance in virtual reality: men prefer motion parallax while women prefer shape-from-shading. This means that motion parallax systems may suit male developers but make female users nauseous. Positive user experience depends on inclusive, user-centric design.

We also know diversity powers performance. Multiple studies concluded that diverse teams demonstrate higher collective intelligence, drive innovation, achieve greater profitability, and realize higher growth in market share. And in virtual reality the majority of interested consumers are non-white — a lack of diversity on teams and a shortage of representative content will be a business handicap.

Most importantly, the type of content we create and consume in virtual reality has the power to reflect and shape our perspectives on the world. As some have suggested, virtual reality can be a vehicle for empathy. Compelling documentaries featuring Syrian refugees or survivors of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia immerse viewers in humanitarian issues and help the UN overcome donor fatigue. Yet as VR-enabled storytelling becomes increasingly commonplace, we must not forget to question the relationship between the storyteller and the subject of the story. Who shaped the narrative? Who has the power to create and enjoy immersive storytelling? Who is excluded?

As the medium expands from gaming to news, entertainment, education, and beyond, these questions will become increasingly important. Business leaders will do well to develop diverse talent and build inclusive teams. Designers and content creators, for their part, should emphasize participatory storytelling and inclusive, user-centered design. And we, as consumers, must practice media literacy and demand content that embraces our diversity.


*Note: Analysis is directional. I estimated percentages by counting founders, CEOs, or other key staff listed on company websites or other sources. I excluded 3 organizations from the sample due to incomplete data. My results are comparable to a 2015 analysis of gender diversity in bitcoin, another emerging technology.

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