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Published 17 January 2023
In 2022, Goldman Sachs estimated that the metaverse could ultimately be an $8 trillion opportunity. Despite being labelled by some as a creative-centric space, gaming and other highly popular, highly revenue generating applications will be at the very core of the metaverse. New generations - Gen Z and later - have larger spending powers than preceding generations and are more interested in interactive gaming. It is not surprising therefore that it is projected that popular Web 2.0 advertising channels such as Instagram will become increasingly redundant. In-game advertisement has been the new focus for brands and although the impeding recession and “crypto-winter” (crypto assets are commonly used for in-game payments) have slashed some metaverse gaming advertising budgets, it will most likely return to the forefront of advertising strategies as the economy recovers.
Proponents of metaverse technology claim its platforms will be built on the pillars of transparency, accessibility and equality. This leads to the conclusion that at least in theory, it will be a victory for diversity, equity and inclusion. Increasingly however, we observe signs of bias in the metaverse and the NFT space and some important conversations are being had about the subject.
We summarise prominent equality, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) issues in the metaverse under three main headings: investment, representation and infrastructure.
Investment in the metaverse
A report by consultancy firm McKinsey concluded that metaverses are already exhibiting the same biases relating to money and power. Despite women committing to greater amounts of meaningful engagement with metaverse technologies, investors are more likely to invest in metaverse companies run by men, and are more likely to invest larger amounts in them. This is similar to the gap existing at Fortune 500 companies, and start-ups, where just 17% of venture capital dollars go to women-led companies, according to the same report.
Representation - the “meta” physical
It is a common misconception that everyone will be equal in the metaverse as the person is represented by an avatar – their digital twin – which will be at liberty to interact with the metaverse on equal footing. In the currently available metaverses however, there are limited options for Black hairstyles and non-binary representations, and there’s no way to display disabilities.
It isn’t only the fact that there is little representation of ED&I but historically an apparent reluctance to embrace and value it. In the end of 2021, Canadian software engineers CryptoPunks revealed their new popular NFT, Meebits. Through a lottery system buyers bought a randomly selected Meebit, but many in the NFT space began to notice that people were dumping predominantly dark-skin and female Meebits on OpenSea for 30% less than their original price.
Harassment in the metaverse
There is also allied issue of harassment in the metaverse, with some reports that women in particular are facing sexual harassment in the virtual world in the same way they do in the physical world. For employers who embrace the metaverse liability for the conduct of their employees who may harass or discriminate against others in the course of their employment in this virtual world is a tricky, and evolving, issue to consider.
Infrastructure - build and connectivity
The points above may lead to a reasonable conclusion that the ED&I issues we see in these early phases of the metaverse arise, at least partially, from the fact that its builders remain predominantly white and male. Readers will be familiar with widely-reported shortcomings in AI face recognition technology, which is known to produce less accurate results when the subjects are women and are not white. This may not be surprising since less than a fifth of IT specialists in the UK are women according to a 2021 survey by BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.
There is also the prospect that the metaverse will only broaden the digital divides by means of virtual exclusion. This encompasses anything from certain persons’ inability to access reliable internet connection, hardware or similar, to accessibility for persons with special educational needs and disabilities.
A study by Diamond Lobby published last year found that although white males make up only 30% of the American population, a mere 8.3% had a non-white female main character in them. This may be changing however as the same study estimates that 50% of the playable characters in the popular game Apex Legends are female and half are male, including one who is nonbinary; 6 out of the 17 main characters are LGBTQ+ and 50% of the playable characters are Black, Asian or non-white.
Another good example is Fortnite, which has already made a name for itself among LGBTQ+ gamers by releasing new avatar skins for Pride Month. The reactions from fans were overwhelmingly positive. In addition, there has been a movement in the design community, known as “design justice” who study communities impacted by their designs and making their voices central to the final product.
Fashion brand Givenchy and popular skincare brand Clinique have used NFTs to raise money for charity via different campaigns supporting the LGBTQ+ community and other initiatives.
In conclusion, work still needs to be done on ensuring ED&I is weaved into the fabric of the metaverse, by involving a diverse group of people in constructing it, ensuring that those in it are free to choose all the protected characteristics they hold as well as making it free from harassment, if we want to do better in the virtual world than we have in the physical one.
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