UPDATED! #BlackLivesMatter: Meditating on Race, Racism, and Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds

Image source: Black Lives Matter

The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you.

Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on. So while I agree with people who say no one is born racist, it remains a powerful system that we’re immediately born into. It’s like being born into air: you take it in as soon as you breathe.

It’s not a cold that you can get over. There is no anti-racist certification class. It’s a set of socioeconomic traps and cultural values that are fired up every time we interact with the world. It is a thing you have to keep scooping out of the boat of your life to keep from drowning in it. I know it’s hard work, but it’s the price you pay for owning everything.

—Scott Woods, African-American poet and blogger (source)

I have been avoiding the news, because I was afraid it would depress me even more than I already am, but I had a severe case of insomnia last night, and I woke up at 2:00 a.m., unable to fall back asleep.

I blogged a few items that were on my to-do list, then I lay down on the sofa and opened up the Apple News app on my iPhone and read all the latest news, about the outpouring of anger and outrage in many cities across America, about injustice and police brutality. About a President who had peaceful protesters tear-gassed and shot at with rubber bullets, so that he could pose with a Bible as a prop, in front a church for a photo op. Rev. Michael Cohen reported in Maclean’s, Canada’s national newsmagazine:

If there is one thing we have discovered to our cost about Donald Trump it’s that he can always surprise us. Not with delight at his eloquence or empathy, or some desire for harmony and decorum, but in horror at some new presidential depth.

And as the sun set over the capital of the United States, the most powerful man in the world had the police fire rubber bullets at non-violent protestors so that he could walk from his news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House to St. John’s Episcopal Church. He stood in front of this historic church, renowned for its commitment to social justice, held a Bible and posed ostentatiously for the cameras.

Just yards away, young people who had been demonstrating against racist violence and the murder of George Floyd wept with tears produced by tear gas and by frustration. Yet Donald Trump, supremely indifferent and even mocking, held high a text that roars love, peace, and justice.

This was blasphemy. In the most authentic and repugnant sense, it was blasphemy.

Global News reported:

The president held up a Bible and posed for photos at the front entrance with Attorney General Bill Barr, Defence Secretary Mark Esper and other administration officials, all of them white.

He did not go inside the church, instead returning to the White House without further mention of Floyd or the protests.

“We have a great country,” Trump said as he posed for photos. “Greatest country in the world.”

Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, who oversees the Episcopal Diocese of Washington that includes St. Johns [Episcopal Church], issued a statement that called the combination of Trump’s photo op and the actions of police “antithetical to the teachings of Jesus and everything that our church stands for.”

“I am outraged,” she said.

“The President did not pray when he came to St. Johns; nor did he acknowledge the agony and sacred worth of people of color in our nation who rightfully demand an end to 400 years of system[atic] racism and white supremacy in our country.”

“In no way do we support the President’s incendiary response to a wounded, grieving nation,” Budde added. Instead, she aligned herself and her diocese “with those seeking justice for the death of George Floyd.”

All this crisis and chaos makes me want to escape even further into the safe, comfortable confines of my social VR platforms like Sansar, and virtual worlds like Second Life. In Second Life, Sansar, and on so many other metaverse platforms, it is so easy to create an avatar that looks absolutely nothing like yourself. You can be anybody—even a Black/African-Canadian person. And, at times, I have been.

(Yes, I full well realize that some people have a problem with me, a White person, creating a Black avatar, considering it offensive and calling it “racial appropriation”. Wagner James Au of the blog New World Notes addressed the topic in a 2017 blogpost. But I still wanted to explore what it meant, in some small way, to be Black, to walk a virtual mile in somebody else’s shoes, and view the virtual world through somebody else’s eyes. And in no way was it intended to be disrespectful.)

But all my experiences as a Black avatar in Second Life or elsewhere DO NOT FOR ONE MOMENT equate with the reality of the pervasive racism that so many Black people face in America and, yes, in Canada too. We are not immune from racism here in Canada, as much as we like to think we Canadians are more liberal, open-minded, and welcoming than our American cousins. (In particular, our country’s predominantly White settler culture still has to come to terms with its shameful, centuries-long history of racism against its Indigenous population. But that is the subject for another blogpost.)

A picture of my main male and female avatars in Second Life, Heath Homewood and Vanity Fair (the two leftmost White avatars), along with five of the Black alts that I have created and styled at various times in my Second Life journey over the past 14 years.
One of my avatars in Sansar, before Linden Lab “updated” the avatars. I’m still rather angry that I had to give this particularly handsome avatar up, in the Avatar 2.0 update of September 2019. Linden Lab landed up abandoning its avatar 2.0 upgrade literally halfway through the project, leaving us with only the head sliders being implemented. I rather doubt that we are ever going to see the rest happen (i.e. body sliders).

Second Life and Sansar and many other metaverse platforms are often overwhelmingly White/Caucasian, markedly more so than real life. Stop for a minute and ask yourself why that would be. Is it because real-life Black people pick a White avatar just to see what it was like to be a different race, as I did?

Or is it because they wanted to avoid standing out, in much the same way as many people who identify as female in real life choose a male avatar to avoid being hit on and treated as sexual objects by Neanderthal men? (My years of personal experiences as Vanity Fair at Frank’s Jazz Club and various other popular music spots in Second Life have provided me with an insightful perspective on the kind of badgering which some women have to put up with, in a way that would have been impossible in real life as a man!)

Back in 2014, Wagner James Au reported on a study done at Ohio State University, where the lack of avatar racial diversity in Second Life impelled Black users to create White avatars:

According to a study by Jong-Eun Roselyn Lee at Ohio State University, Discovery Magazine reports, a lack of avatar racial diversity in an MMO impels black users to create white avatars. Lee’s study was conducted in Second Life, but seems generally applicable to MMOs in general where it’s possible for usres to designate their race:

“Lee gathered 56 study participants — half identifying as white and half identifying as black. She then had them read a fabricated magazine story titled “Meet the Coolest ‘Second Life’ Residents.” The eight Second Life avatars profiled in the story were either all white, in the low-diversity scenario, or an equal mix of white, black, Hispanic and Asian, in the high-diversity scenario. She then had them perform two tasks: Create and customize their own virtual avatars, and rate their willingness to reveal their real racial identity through the appearance of their virtual avatar. She found that black participants reported less willingness in the low-diversity scenario, and that they also created whiter avatars, as judged by objective raters. By comparison, white study participants were largely unaffected by either the high-diversity or low-diversity scenarios.”

In other words, when the “cool avatars” are presented to be all white, black users tend to choose white avatars for themselves, while keeping quiet about their real race. This academic study matches the anecdotal reports we’ve been writing about on this blog, beginning in 2006 with “The Skin You’re In“, in which a white user experienced prejudice after she started using a black avatar. (An experiment another white user tried last year.) African-American users like Eboni Khan have told me about this phenomenon from their own perspective too:

“You don’t find many African-American people being dark online. Which is funny, because there are plenty of dark black people in real life. I came from [another online world], and I was one of the few chocolate avies. Most were caramel. They blamed it on clothes being designed more for caramel [skinned avatars]. But that’s a cop-out. I think it speaks to larger issues with race and skin tone. But you can’t preach to people online who only want to get virtual ass. So I keep my observations to myself.”

Here’s a link to the bibliographic details and an abstract of Lee’s paper from ResearchGate, if you’re interested and want to go read it for yourself: Does virtual diversity matter?: Effects of avatar-based diversity representation on willingness to express offline racial identity and avatar customization. (You’ll have to get the journal article via your local academic or public library, though.)

Race and racism is a very touchy subject, both in real life and virtual life. And I am being extra careful here, mindful of my White perspective, not to cause offense (but if I have done so anyway, I apologize). And I do not, by any stretch of the imagination, consider myself an expert on the topic.

But I do think that on the various metaverse platforms on the ever-evolving marketplace (which I do consider myself somewhat of an expert on), people have an unparalleled opportunity to interact with each other, and communicate with each other, without any bias as to your race (unless the person you are talking to chooses to self-disclose their identity as a person of colour).

I have had wonderful, wide-ranging conversations with people—and made many online friends—without any idea of what that person looks like. So I would think that social VR platforms and virtual worlds could have a potentially useful application in combatting racism in all the forms outlined in Scott Woods’ quote up top: not only overt hate against Black people, but also White privilege, access, ignorance, and apathy.

But equity, diversity, and inclusion in virtual worlds is not guaranteed; people (and their avatar representations) have to work, and they have to work hard, at creating the more just world they want to see, both in real life and in virtual life. Current news events are a stark reminder that we cannot just declare ourselves non-racist; we have to be actively anti-racist. And we need to bring that mindset into the virtual worlds we inhabit, as well.

You can start by educating yourself on the issues, as I intend to do. Journalist Katie Couric has compiled a detailed list of anti-racism resources to help you get started.

An image from this week’s global protests (source)

UPDATE June 11th, 2020: Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life) has issued a statement in support of Black Lives Matter, Social Injustice Has No Place in the Physical or Virtual World, that reads in part:

Like many of you, we are feeling a combination of horror and outrage over the history of racism against Black lives. What we continue to witness is deeply disturbing and demanding of immediate social change.

The killing of George Floyd seen on video around the world is only one in a long and unacceptable series of violent and racist attacks and discriminatory behavior directed against people of color. 

We stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, all victims of systemic oppression and violence, and with Black communities across the U.S., the globe, and the virtual world in condemning racism and any and all actions that promote division.

Our mission at Second Life has always been to help build a better world, and in support of Black Lives Matter, we will be donating $10,000 each to three charities that are active in helping to fight oppression and injustice including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

The company followed up with a second blog post, Exploring Black Lives Matter in Second Life, providing links to in-world locations such as the Walls of Freedom memorial (which I wrote about here), the Stand for Justice event, The Black Excellence Project, and the Virtual Black History Museum. The post includes the following 4-minute video:

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Breakroom: A New Social Hub for Remote Work Teams, Education, and Conferences from Sinespace

Sinespace has decided to branch out into an area that has seen a mini-boom in recent months: social VR platforms whose aim is to provide an immersive social hub to bring together work teams who may be scattered across different neighbourhoods, different cities, even different countries!

This is a particularly critical need, as so many employees are now working in self-isolation from their homes in an effort to stop the spread of the current coronavirus pandemic. Keeping your team connected and motivated, when pre-existing lines of communication have been shattered and shared physical spaces are no longer available, can negatively impact a company’s productivity and morale, and its bottom line. Sinespace is selling Breakroom as a way to overcome these hurdles.

The concept is to bring your work team together in your own safe, secure, branded virtual world, providing team members a private space where they can hang out, connect with peers, chat around the virtual water cooler, and feel part of the group. Some of the benefits are:

  • Use live events and social hangouts to create momentum and enthusiasm;
  • Go beyond work collaboration tools to offer a full social space where your team members can be themselves;
  • Help people maintain the friendships they rely on in their daily lives, even if they are physically apart;
  • Support employee mental health while they self-isolate with shared spaces and activities, and combat the threat of depression and other mental health issues that isolation, worry, and fear can lead to.

Among the many features offered by Breakroom are:

  • Exhibition halls
  • Corporate headquarters
  • Amphitheaters
  • Open plan offices
  • Private offices
  • Student common rooms
  • Cinema and screening rooms
  • Live music venues
  • Casual game regions and tables
  • Breakout rooms
  • Hangouts
  • Explorable regions
  • Extensive avatar customization
  • 10,000+ virtual goods for shopping and building your own worlds
  • Full suite of communication tools (VOIP, IM and inworld email)
  • Video conferencing, video sharing and conferencing tools
  • Media sharing and desktop sharing tools
  • Branded exhibition stands
  • Event management system
  • Mature APIs for integrating other enterprise applications
  • In-world building and scene editing
  • HIPAA compliant regions for one-to-one therapy sessions
  • Support for live events including music, cinema, pub quizzes, seminar sessions

Breakroom is also partnering with a number of agency partners who can build a custom breakroom to your company’s specifications. And, of course, content designed by existing Sinespace developers can also be bought by users to use in their Breakrooms, giving them yet another avenue for sales.

Pricing for corporate users starts at US$500 per month for 50 seats, a fully-featured private custom branded space, with dedicated customer support. Additional seats can be purchased for only US$10 per month per seat. Bulk discounts are available; please contact the company for further details.

And Sinespace is offering Breakroom to state and public schools for free, with an unlimited number of seats! A product such as this can so easily bring students and teachers together, in an immersive, shared virtual space, in a way that Zoom and Webex simply cannot.

Breakroom

Wagner James Au of the long-running virtual worlds blog New World Notes has written several pieces about Breakroom: an introduction to the platform with a brief interview with lead developer Adam Frisby, as well as a poll asking potential education users what time slots they would prefer for live group demos.

And, I note with interest, among the staff listing for Breakroom, Wagner is listed under the job title of Public Relations for this new venture. You gotta hand it to Wagner; he knows how to hustle for his coin! He’s one of the hardest working men in the metaverse (after, of course, the utterly inexhaustible Draxtor Despres), and no doubt offers Sinespace the wealth of his many years of experience in virtual worlds.

On Friday, May 1st, Sinespace hosted the first open house of Breakroom, to demonstrate the various features of the platform for visitors. Sinespace staff demoed Breakrooms features to support remote work and teaching, including webcam calls, a dynamic whiteboard, screensharing, and a group quiz system.

A screencap from the Breakroom open house livestream (below)

And, if you feel the need to let off some steam, why not take your work team to the racetrack?

The race track in Breakroom

If you missed the open house, you can catch the entire hour-and-a-half livestream here. There’s lots to see and do! Breakroom is the perfect virtual meeting spot for your work team to feel connected and energized.

To get started in Breakroom, just fill out the form at the bottom of their official website, and a representative from the company will get in touch with you. There are also downloadable demo versions of Breakroom for both Windows and MacOS users, if you want to kick the tires, test out the features, and see how Breakroom can work for your company.

More information about Sinespace is available from their website, and you can also follow them on social media: Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and YouTube.


This blogpost is sponsored by Sinespace, and was written in my role as an embedded reporter for this virtual world (more details here). 

Editorial: Why Unoptimized Mesh Bodies and Content Are a Problem in Second Life—And Why Most SL Users Don’t Care

Have you joined the RyanSchultz.com Discord yet? You’re invited to be a part of the first ever cross-worlds discussion group, with over 300 people participating from every social VR platform and virtual world! More details here


Image of a well-optimized mesh avatar body with a lower triangle count
(from New World Notes)

I am going to broach an unpopular topic in Second Life. (Some have even warned me that I might get hate mail from some readers.)

Wagner James Au has been writing his blog about Second Life since the very beginning of the platform, and he has seen a lot come and go in his time. One of his regular rants lately has been about just how horribly unoptimized and inefficient many of the modern mesh avatar bodies are in Second Life. (Frankly, it’s not just mesh bodies; there is quite a bit of other poorly-constructed content in SL—houses, furniture, decorations, etc.—with sky-high rendering costs. Part of the problem is that Linden Lab doesn’t want to break any old content if they can help it.)

Why is this so important? Well, the more complex your avatar is, the more effort it takes for the graphics card in your computer to calculate and display what you see correctly on your screen. And it’s not just your mesh avatar; it’s everybody else’s mesh avatar who is on the same sim as you, plus all the scenery around you, too! Every Second Life user has experienced irritating delays in rendering scenery when they first spawn on a new sim, and significant lag at busy events where there a large number of avatars to render. These problems have been going on for years and years now.

The problem is that Wagner is pretty much beating a dead horse with his critiques. Most Second Life users care only about how good their avatar looks, and they don’t know (or don’t care) about how much unoptimized mesh content negatively impacts SL and other users, particularly those on older, slower computers. I myself have an absolute beast of a gaming computer, built especially to support my Oculus Rift VR headset and to run VR games and apps at the requisite 90 frames per second (to avoid VR-induced nausea). I routinely run my Firestorm viewer for SL at the maximum, Ultra quality settings, and usually my computer handles everything just fine.

Linden Lab well knows that this can be a problem, and some years ago they introduced something called the Avatar Rendering Cost (ARC for short). Here’s a summary of how ARC is calculated. Basically, it is a figure calculated for each avatar on a sim, based on whether they have a classic or mesh avatar, what they are wearing (clothes, hair, shoes, accessories), etc. Showing the ARC on yourself and other avatars is easy to turn on in Firestorm: just press Ctrl-P to bring up the Preferences panel, click on the General tab on the top left-hand side, and check the box next to “Show avatar complexity”:

Many SL viewers will allow you to automatically derender avatars whose ARC is above a certain limit (which means offenders will appear as the so-called “jelly dolls”). This feature can improve Second Life performance significantly for some users. (Like I said, I have my settings adjusted to properly view everybody around me on a sim, regardless of how high their ARC is. I want to see what everybody is wearing, dammit! I often find new stores to visit and new things to buy by doing a right click/inspect on avatars around me. I can’t do that if they are derendered! But obviously, there is a significant rendering cost on my computer, especially at busy events.)

But today’s discussion of this topic on the #second-life channel on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server really brought home to me just how serious the problem of unoptimized, inefficient mesh can be in SL. Recently, a Second Life vlogger named Cassie Middles created a chart showing how many triangles make up each of the popular mesh bodies. (Here’s a direct link to the Google spreadsheet she created. The higher the number of triangles, the more complex the object, and the harder your computer graphics card has to work in order to render it properly. As well as everybody else’s computer.)

One of the mind-blowing facts I learned today is that the brand new Legacy mesh body (just the naked body with hands and feet, without any clothes, shoes, jewelry, a mesh head, hair, etc.) comes out to a whopping 794,368 triangles!

To put that astronomical figure into some perspective, someone said that that number is significantly higher than the rendering cost of an entire match of Overwatch players (two teams of six avatars each, at an average triangle count of 40,270 triangles per character, for a total of 483,240 triangles). That is truly insane! And the feet alone on the new Legacy mesh body come to 380,368 triangles! Mind you, most games are deliberately designed to be as optimized as possible, but nobody needs that level of complexity! It is complete overkill.

But, as I said, writing about this is kind of like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. There is really no incentive for mesh body makers (and other mesh content makers) to create and sell better-optimized mesh in Second Life, and no penalty if they don’t. Linden Lab does not ban or restrict avatars for having very high rendering costs. For example, here is one outfit I put together for my main avatar, Vanity Fair, which has a total Avatar Rendering Cost of 702,597! This means that, when I wear this lovely outfit to a place like Frank’s Jazz Club, I am pretty much seen as a jelly doll (i.e. derendered) by everybody around me. In other words, I am only dressing to be seen by me.

If I take off the three sets of shimmery flexiprims that are part of the skirt of this beautiful gown, the ARC drops to 108,365. If I remove the jewelry, the ARC goes down to a quite reasonable 59,575 (some older jewelry in particular can be quite badly optimized):

Even making these simple changes to an outfit can make a big difference to performance (for you and others), especially at crowded events.

So, even though it might be a losing battle, I might just decide to add my voice to Wagner’s about the proper optimization of mesh content in Second Life. I still think it’s a losing battle, though. Most SL consumers could care less.

I think that the best that we can do at this stage is two things:

  1. Promote awareness of the problems of unoptimized, inefficent content among Second Life consumers (for example, including triangle counts or some other complexity measurement in SL Marketplace listings of products);
  2. Educate SL content creators to make more efficient mesh by using proper decimation and other techniques in tools such as Maya, 3ds Max, and Blender.

Yes, it’s an uphill battle, but it’s worth fighting for a better-performing Second Life for everybody, don’t you agree?

Recent Statistics Show a Slow But Steady Increase in Sansar Users (Also: The Most Popular Worlds in Sansar)

Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

I do find it somewhat ironic that the two Sansar users who have posted user concurrency statistics for the platform in the past—Galen and Gindipple—have both largely moved on from Sansar to other projects.

However, I did receive a recent statistics chart generated by Gindipple, courtesy of Medhue (thanks!), which I wanted to share with you:

Gindipple’s stats show slow but steady growth in the number of concurrent users on Sansar. The monthly average concurrent Sansarians figure (bottom chart) has roughly doubled between March 2018 and October 2019.

Galen’s statistics page shows a similar growth in users, including peaks of up to 150 concurrent users at one time:

Even Wagner James Au, of the long-running blog New World Notes, who has often criticized Sansar for its low user concurrency figures in the past, posted the following “infographic” based on Steam usage figures (drawn by the talented artist Danielle Feigenbaum, creator of the regular feature Nylon Pinkney is Online comic on his blog):

Now, I do have a couple of criticisms of this image.

First, it is not an infographic; it is a cartoon. The zig-zag graph in the background is purely decorative, not informative.

Second, the small print along the bottom is almost impossible to read. It says:

Total concurrent users across all platforms potentially 2-3 times larger than Steam CCUs (concurrent users). Numbers based on Steam stats in September 2019 – Source: Steam Database Info

Even Wagner cannot deny that Sansar has had a recent jump in usage:

As of last month, in terms of peak concurrent users, VRChat remains the 800 pound Knuckle [a reference to the Ugandan Knuckles meme], with Rec Room maintaining its distant second place.  There was also a small surprise bump for Linden Lab’s Sansar… After concurrency rates that averaged in the mid two figures (yes, that low) for most of the year, Sansar peak concurrency for September jumped to 220 last Friday. Thanks, at least in part, to a VR dating show hosted by online celebrity Jesse Cox and probably more key, the launch of an official Hello Kitty experience…

The problem with relying solely on Steam statistics in the case of Sansar is that there are two different ways that people can download the Sansar client software:

  1. Via Steam (which does publish public statistics on usage);
  2. Via the Sansar website (Linden Lab does not publish user stats).

We have no way of knowing what percentage of Sansar users downloaded their client software via Steam. Therefore, we still have to guess at the total overall level of usage of Sansar, using imperfect tools such as Steam stats and Galen’s and Gindipple’s statistics.

However, all three sources do show a slow but steady increase in the number of concurrent users in Sansar, which I’m sure Linden Lab is pleased to see. Of course, they also have their own internal statistics, which they do not release to the public, which I am sure confirm this trend.


Gindipple also released a pie chart showing the most popular Sansar worlds. Unsurprisingly (since all incoming users spawn there by default now), the Nexus is the most visited world, with 70% of the total number of recent visitors (I believe that these stats cover the past seven days):

Following the Nexus, the most popular Sansar worlds (formerly called experiences) are:

  • Skyway Avenue (3.69% of total recent visitors)
  • The Point of No Return – Chapter I (2.65%)
  • Susan’s Diary (2.39%)
  • Orphanage of Angels (2.35%)
  • Fire Goat’s Free Avatar Store (1.96%)
  • Ultimate Disc (1.93%)
  • The Slewhouse (1.85%)
  • Once Upon a Midnight Dream (1.77%)
  • Scurry Waters (1.57%)
  • Monstercat Call of the Wild (1.52%)
  • Sanrio World (1.44%)
  • Camp Goonies (1.24%)
  • 114 Harvest (1.07%)

I do have rather mixed feelings about Linden Lab’s recent design decision to have users automatically spawn in the Nexus when they log into Sansar. On one hand, it does make it much easier for avatars to encounter other avatars in-world, and I often see groups of people gathered having conversations with each other, which is good.

But on the other hand, it is an absolute pain in the ass to have to keep going back to the Nexus when you simply want to explore the various Sansar worlds. If you are in desktop mode, you can still use the Atlas on the Sansar website, but if you are in VR mode, you pretty much have to keep cycling through the Nexus to find and select new experiences to visit, which quickly gets tiring.