In Facebook’s vision of the metaverse, we will all interact in a mashup of the digital and physical worlds. Digital representations of ourselves will eat, talk, date, shop, and more. That’s the picture Mark Zuckerberg painted as he rebranded his company Meta a couple of weeks ago.

The Facebook founder’s typically awkward presentation used a cartoon avatar of himself doing things like scuba diving or conducting meetings. But Zuckerberg ultimately expects the metaverse to include lifelike avatars whose features would be much more realistic, and which would engage in many of the same activities we do in the real world—just digitally.

“The goal here is to have both realistic and stylized avatars that create a deep feeling that we’re present with people,” Zuckerberg said at the rebranding.

If avatars really are on their way, then we’ll need to face some tough questions about how we present ourselves to others. How might these virtual versions of ourselves change the way we feel about our bodies, for better or worse?

Avatars are not a new concept, of course. Gamers have used them for decades: the pixelated, boxy creatures of Super Mario have given way to the hyperrealistic forms ofDeath Stranding,which emote and move eerily like a living, breathing human. 

But how we use avatars becomes more complicated when we expect them to act as representations of ourselves beyond the context of a particular game. It’s one thing to inhabit the overalls and twang of Mario. It’s another to create an avatar that acts as your ambassador, your representation, your very self. The avatars of the metaverse will be participating in situations that might involve higher stakes than treasure in a race. In interviews or meetings, this self-presentation might play a bigger, far more consequential role. 

For some people, avatars that reflect who they are would be a powerful source of validation. But creating one can be a struggle. Gamer Kirby Crane, for example, recently ran an experiment where he tried to do one simple thing: make an avatar that looked like him in 10 different video games.

Thread:

Hi, I’m Kirby! I like video games, and I’ve always been a fan of avatar creators. However, as fat, gay, pre-medical transition trans man, I’m usually not represented by my avatar. For @GamerTroublePhD ‘s class, I am trying to make myself in 10 avatar creators from games pic.twitter.com/i5yTJN6T7a

— kirby

(@kirbygcrane) May 18, 2021

“My goal wasn’t so much to explore the philosophy of avatars but more to explore the representation that’s available in current avatars and see if I could portray myself accurately,” says Crane, who describes himself as a “fat, gay, pre–medical transition trans man.”

Some games allowed him to bulk up his body but bizarrely had him burst out of his clothes if he tried to make the character fat. Other games didn’t allow for an avatar to be male with breasts, which Crane found isolating, as it suggested that the only way to be male was to be male-presenting.

None of the avatars, in the end, felt like Crane—a result he wasn’t surprised by. “Not that I need validation from random game developers, but it’s dehumanizing to see the default man and the accepted parameters of what it means,” he says. 

Crane’s experiment isn’t scientific, nor is it any indication of how the metaverse will operate. But it offers a peek into why avatars in the metaverse could have far-reaching consequences for how people feel and live in the real, physical world. 

What complicates the issue further is Meta’s announcement of Codec Avatars, a project within Facebook’s VR/AR research arm, Reality Labs, that is working toward making photorealistic avatars. Zuckerberg highlighted some of the advances the group has made in making avatars seem more human, such as clearer emotions and better rendering of hair and skin.

“You’re not always going to want to look exactly like yourself,” he said. “That’s why people shave their beards, dress up, style their hair, put on makeup, or get tattoos, and of course, you’ll be able to do all of that and more in the metaverse.”

That hyperpersonalization could allow avatars to realistically portray the lived experience of millions of people who, like Crane, have thus far found the technology limiting. But people might also do the opposite and create avatars that are idealized, unhealthy versions of themselves: puffing out their lips and butt to Kardashian-ify their appearance, lightening their skin to play into racist stereotypes, whitewashing their culture by changing features outright.

In other words, what happens if the avatar you present isn’t who you are? Does it matter?

Jennifer Ogle of Colorado State University and

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By: Tanya Basu
Title: The metaverse is the next venue for body dysmorphia online
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/11/16/1040174/facebook-metaverse-body-dysmorphia/
Published Date: Tue, 16 Nov 2021 09:30:00 +0000

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