Horizon CDT Research Highlights

Research Highlights

Towards an Ethical Framework for the Use, Creation and Control of Avatars and Virtual Humans

  Favour Borokini (2022 cohort)   www.favourborokini.com

The goal of this research is to investigate motivations behind alternative identity construction using avatars by Nigerian women.

In October 2021, Facebook announced its rebrand into Meta, and the beginning of the company’s new direction focusing on immersive technologies, sparking increased interest in the metaverse and immersive technologies. In the following year, the word “metaverse” came second in the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year, reflecting its prominence in the public vocabulary.

Immersive spaces, like earlier iterations of the internet, represent a stage for realising utopian ideals, characterised by (dis)embodiment and experiences unrestricted by geographical constraints. Furthermore, the question of identity and the representation of the self, to facilitate interaction through profiles or avatars, has been a central way the internet has been used since its inception. For these reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that depictions of avatars - the representation of the self, have only grown more elaborate as an integral way of participating in immersive spaces.

However, the history of the internet is also plagued by its setting as a stage for the translation of offline harms into online harms and the creation of previously non-viable ones. The question of identity itself is often a frequent cause for legal, policy and safety concerns and the subject of much philosophical musing, something which variations of Computer and Cybersecurity Misuse Acts have cropped up to address, often too slowly and too late. Extended Reality, however, presents a new opportunity for the potential triumph of ethical and legal regulation, being, still in the early stages of mass adoption and integration.

Yet, vulnerable users like Nigerian women who are extremely reliant on internet networks and infrastructure for the opportunities they offer, risk being disproportionately hurt in immersive spaces caught in the crosshairs of conflict between platform usage and regulation.

Research Question

This research will try to answer the following questions:

  1. What motivations drive the creation and use of virtual humans and 3D avatars by Nigerian women?
  2. How can ethical frameworks for virtual human and 3D avatar support and prioritise liberatory and emancipatory values, and should they? To what extent can this be done legally, through platforms?
  3. How do corporate, individual, and hegemonic (social and legal) values differ and impact the creation of 3D avatars and virtual humans?
To answer these questions, this PhD project will explore concepts from legal theory, philosophy, and sociology related to technology-facilitated identity construction. It will also engage with Nigerian women, as well as designers and policymakers to better understand how the needs, preoccupations and concerns of these three different groups related to identity may be understood and reconciled.
By answering these questions, this research will provide a guide for stakeholders in developing policy and design recommendations which will be a useful signpost for understanding the needs of other minority groups.

This author is supported by the Horizon Centre for Doctoral Training at the University of Nottingham (UKRI Grant No. EP/S023305/1).