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The young female designers changing Roblox for the better
Much lip-service (although, probably not enough yet) has been paid to the gender disparity threatening the metaverse. For the uninitiated, the metaverse – a catch-all term lent to the nebulous web of various extended or virtual reality spaces on the internet, including but not exclusively Facebook’s Meta, Roblox’s gamespace, and anything you might experience in Oculus – has a sexism problem.
With only 19% of the people working in tech being women and, as you might imagine, only a fraction of that percentage being women of colour, white male dominance in the arena of virtual reality design poses problems. The first issue is about gatekeeping. With powerful male tech magnates, like Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, or Second Life and Minecraft CEOs Philip Rosedale and Matthew Mcclure, holding the reins at some of the world’s biggest digital platforms, a robust plan for achieving gender representation in the workforce feels like a long way off. Indeed, the drive to attract more women into tech positions in the last few years has been crushingly slow. The percentage of new tech industry hires that were women increased by only 1% between 2020 and 2021.
The second problem, is that without female voices in the room at every level, the virtual reality design being conceived of risks alienating women even further. With game spaces, avatar appearance, character actions and marketing decisions all being largely organised by men, women participants have not only found their tastes uncatered for, but their appearance in these spaces filtered through a male gaze. Sexualised waifs, tiny waists, alabaster skin and child-like puppy-dog eyes are crude examples of the way women are represented in the gaming world, but these tropes are common still and indicative of beauty standards that we’ve worked hard to throw off IRL. Who here recently paid for an AI-generated avatar to post on Instagram, only to find their computerised self endowed with a much bigger cup-size? Arguably sexist game-play, objectified female characters and male-dominance in chat forums all risk amplifying gender-based friction in a way that could set women and girls back decades. The problem is severe enough that women’s publications like The Stack World have dubbed it the ‘Men-taverse’.
‘Who here paid for an AI-avatar to post on Instagram, only to find their computerised self endowed with a much bigger cup-size?’
Despite all of this, though, it does feel a little like we might be on the cusp of entering a new chapter for the metaverse. One that we can, at least in some part, credit to major fashion houses. With the likes of Gucci, Burberry, Off-White and Givenchy all creating metaverse activations, in some form or another, it’s brought mass awareness to places that previously only the Snapchat and Z-generations were familiar with. Now, even your mum and dad are likely to have heard of the Gucci Garden, or Nike selling trainers as NFTs.
And with this new awareness has also come a crop of young women determined to take some of the power back from the men that have wielded it for too long, even if they have to elbow their way in through the side-return. In 2019, Roblox made it possible for the platform’s users to design their own virtual clothing and accessories. While UGC (user generated content) was at first limited to a select number of already heroed virtual designers, the platform later opened it up to more people.
And so, with the door cracked just a little, young upstarts like Vivian ‘EvilArtist’ Arellano, a 20-year-old self-taught designer from California, and Jenni ‘Lovespun’ Svoboda, a Texas-based 21-year-old who similarly took it upon herself to learn how to rig and animate in the metaverse, took the opportunity to show us what women are capable of in this space.
Meeting the pair in a Google hangout, my first impression is that they are striking for their differences. Arellano is in a bright open space, next to a huge window. She looks relaxed, in glasses, slacks and a hoodie. Svoboda, on the other hand, sits against a cute, curated background of various pink objets d’art including fairy lights. Her blonde hair falls about her made-up face and she smiles warmly. Their appearance is irrelevant of course, save to highlight the complexity and difference to be found among a group of people that is only recently finding proper representation in the virtual space. And what I soon learn is that (different) looks can be deceiving, for these two are thick as thieves. Intent on forging careers in a tough, male-saturated environment, they’ve realised that nurturing the sisterhood is the best way to get ahead.
‘Roblox was dominated for a long time by the male gaze,’ says Arellano. ‘So many of the employees were men and had a view of what the regular gamer was, and that it was mostly male. But when Roblox introduced their UGC programme to let creators make accessories, clothing and now more, it started an immediate tidal change.’
‘Yeah,’ agrees Svoboda. ‘We’ve entered the swapover era. Women are coming in and other minorities in general. We’re going, hey, actually we can code too. We can create.’
One of the first things that virtual designers like Arellano and Svoboda, along with a cohort of fellow female and minority creators have actively tackled, is using the increasing breadth of customisation options, in avatar fashion and also body type and hair styles, to secure better visual depictions of people like themselves.
‘We came in, and we just kind of took a little powder brush to ourselves, or whatever metaphor you want to use,’ explains Svoboda. ‘We toned down the sexy and brought a little more representation.’
‘I recently had a call with Jenni and another wonderful creator,’ expands Arellano, ‘and she mentioned that she wanted [her avatar] to wear this hairstyle that had braids, but also a feather on it. And she was being constantly asked if she was Native American. She’s Black and she really liked the braids on the hair, [but there wasn’t an option without the feather]. And so that’s something we’ve been able to address recently, just making sure more of these curly and braided hairstyles are available.’
‘We toned down the sexy and brought a little more representation’
For Arellano’s own avatar, it’s about marrying the fantasy elements (her alter-ego has blue skin), with other things that make her feel seen as an individual: ‘I gave her clothes that I wear in real life. I make items for myself. That’s one of the things that I do for my own brand. I make items that I think I would want to wear.’
And it’s not just about making cardigans that you can layer over T-shirts, or pink hair pieces with streaked highlights (although I am assured that this is an exciting newer feature). For both of these young women, the UGC programme has been a stepping stone to some incredible, and incredibly lucrative, brand partnerships.
Ahead of the release of Montero, Lil Nas X’s team approached Arellano to create custom designs for Roblox users to celebrate the album launch. ‘They told me about the album and I was able to see visuals about a month ahead and they just said,”Give us concepts. Figure out what players could wear for Lil Nas X”.’ And so she found herself commissioned to make feathered headphones, a pink sparkly guitar accessory and various other stage-costume inspired hats and shoes.
Svoboda’s skills have attracted similarly huge requests. For Elton John’s Beyond The Yellow Brick Road Roblox concert experience, she was asked to help animate Elton and tweak elements of his clothing as it moved. ‘Someone had motion captured a lot of his dances and movements for his concert and some of his gestures. And what I had to do was go in and edit bone-by-bone parts of the motion and tweak it out, like edit if an arm was going too far in one direction, because sometimes that doesn’t translate well into 3D. Or I tweaked the way his mouth would move, so that it worked with the song properly.’
You might think that soaring to such heights could make these young women guarded. Protective of work opportunities that have, traditionally, been infrequently offered to female designers. But the opposite is true, and it’s only strengthening their position. Arellano and Svoboda are effusive in their praise of each other and other women they’ve encountered. While discussing Mermaid Life, a game about fashion and magic in an underwater kingdom that Arellano has been developing, Svoboda regularly interrupts to tell me what a huge fan she is of the game and cite all her favourite parts. She even pushes Arellano to talk about the partnership between Mermaid Life and supermodel Karlie Kloss’ Roblox pop-up series Karlie’s Klosette Designer Showcase.
And when Svoboda was approached to do a project for Barbie, she called on Arellano to help her build and direct the team, citing it as a ‘joint success’ between the two of them. The pair have clearly worked out that to beat the brohort on the platform, they need to hold each other up.
‘There are groups of people on Roblox who are like, “You can’t sit with us”,’ says Svoboda, Arellano chiming in, ‘And so I think we kind of coalitioned together, as more and more women joined. We have an event called RDC (Roblox Developers Conference). And every year, we take a picture of all the girls together and year through year, that image has gotten so much bigger. And we have a whole group chat of just us girls, just for us to discuss all the things that we come across.’
‘Yeah we support each other,’ Svoboda takes over, ‘There’s a support channel and a Chatter channel. All of us have united. There’s an unspoken code.’
It is concerning that the metaverse might be a hostile place for women and girls. Parents have every right to be worried as their kids engage with a digital space that they themselves might struggle to get to grips with. And there’s plenty to fuel the fear. The male gaze is still severe. The chat functionalities need rigorous monitoring. We need actively to address avatar beauty standards that aren’t just unfair, they’re inappropriately sexualised and completely unattainable. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from speaking to Svoboda and Arellano, it’s that young women are savvy. At least when it comes to those with designs on metaverse careers. They are wise to the landscape they are working within. They know that there is strength in numbers and they’re doing everything they can to tip the scales. They’re holding hands to ring-fence their talents. And it’s not going unnoticed by brands with the money to play King-(or Queen-)maker. If the kids are anything like Svoboda and Arellano, they’re going to be alright.