How Avatars Are Helping Gen Z Find Themselves

  • Text Carolyn Cutrone
  • Design Keya Shah

This article was originally published as part of Perspective's zine, "Unplugged," which debuted in March 2023.

Strut down the street dressed as a dinosaur made out of watermelons or a princess holding both a sword and an ice cream and you’ll get, at the very least, several discerning stares. Do the same in a metaverse experience, one like Roblox’s popular Adopt Me! game, and nobody will blink twice.

The freedom to express yourself through an avatar—a digital representation of a user as they inhabit these virtual spaces—may not be the sole purpose of these games, but it has provided an invaluable opportunity for brands to reach Gen Z and Gen Alpha and an irresistible lure for those generations to embody their true selves.

The metaverse, put simply, is a virtual world that lies beyond, on top of, or as an extension of the physical world. Although many brands are experimenting with ways of building community with these audiences in this digital third space, one opportunity in particular is leapfrogging ahead of all others: the ability to create and sell verch (that is, virtual merchandise). As brands experiment and learn how they want to use the metaverse to showcase products and create experiences for their customers, Gen Z is primed to explore: most now prefer to spend their time in digital worlds as opposed to physical. The next generation has always been drawn to online spaces where they can be anonymous and feel safe, and the metaverse provides that on steroids.

Roblox, an online gaming and entertainment platform, reports more than 58 million daily active users. Of those 58 million, 54 percent are under the age of 13. Additionally, 60 percent of Fortnite players are between the ages of 18 and 24. According to Fortnite usage and revenue stats, young people spend twice as much of their time online than IRL. And where young people congregate willingly, there’s a high chance they find community there. According to a Razorfish study, 52% of Gen Z gamers feel more like themselves in the metaverse than in real life. Much of this likely comes down to freedom to experiment, lower risk of being judged and anonymity

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Alexander Lee, Senior Gaming and Esports reporter at Digiday, sees anonymity as a key factor in how online worlds function and a great way to give people more freedom. “One of the really exciting things about the metaverse is that it allows people to experiment with new identities that don't necessarily reflect the agency they were born with,” he explains. “Metaverse environments would be a great way for Trans people to experience life in their preferred gender. Anonymity is obviously necessary in order to give people the ability to express themselves fully without being tied to whatever baggage they have coming from the real world.”

However, some users, like avid gamer, Charles Weichselbaum, visit the metaverse primarily for fun rather than to explore identity. “I don’t have a personal need in real life to experiment with anything, so I use games as an opportunity to play, which is what they’re built to do.”

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However, Weichselbaum still enjoys experimenting and choosing avatars that look very different from his real-life likeness because he says it makes him more unique when interacting with others in the metaverse. “A game allows you to experiment fashionably with your gender, cosmetics, skin color, in really fun and wacky ways that I think in real life would be uncomfortable to a lot of people,” he says.

Although Weichselbaum believes there are benefits to experimenting anonymously via avatars in the metaverse—they often project the feeling that it’s a safe space—he acknowledges it’s not always this way: people are still judging someone based on their avatar and username, which are the first touchpoints with which they interact. For example, his avatar’s name is “Hebrew Hammer,” chosen based on the Comedy Central movie, “The Hebrew Hammer”.

Weichselbaum has gone by this name since he began gaming as a child and has experienced anti-semitism as a result. “As a really young kid, I realized anti-semitism is a very real thing,” he says. “While running around [in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare], there are a lot of people throwing out antisemitic slurs, and I’ve grown a thick skin but it’s very eye-opening as a kid, putting that part of myself out there publicly."

Despite obstacles that exist, users’ penchant for experimentation— both for identity exploration and play—are getting noticed by brands trying to break into the space in productive ways. Brands are beginning to identify that developing products specifically for digital worlds is lucrative and supportive of the hunger to spend time there. For example, #client Chipotle created a commemorative Boorito T-shirt for Roblox which was free to purchase but could be worn in other experiences, farthing its digital footprint for the brand.

The fashion industry has paved the way for this as well. Parsons School of Design in New York even offers a course dedicated entirely to designing clothing for avatars in partnership with Roblox, launching in spring of 2023. A metaverse fashion report that Parsons and Roblox teamed up on was also released alongside the announcement and highlights brands like Gucci, Nike, Burberry, Carolina Herrera, Ralph Lauren and others that are experimenting with digital clothing.

These brands are taking the leap into digital-first fashion because there’s community demand and digital identity is becoming increasingly important to people. For example, the aforementioned report found that two-thirds of respondents are excited to wear brand name virtual items on Roblox, and nearly half of Gen Z consumers look for digital fashion brands to offer new and different clothes they can experiment with that they normally wouldn’t in real life. Additionally, respondents said it’s important to have diverse customization options for their avatars like a range of skin tones, body sizes, hair colors and styles; the majority agreed that inclusivity is crucial.

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Some items of clothing are even being manufactured in the physical world after they debut in the digital one. “There are some examples of garments that were designed for the Forever 21 Roblox brand first that were so successful and sold so much inside the platform that the company actually started manufacturing them in the physical world,” Lee says.

The more choices people have to develop their digital identities and customize their avatars, the more they can authentically express themselves in the metaverse. Half of the Roblox/Parsons survey respondents said that they are changing their avatar’s clothing at least twice a week, and 47% of the report’s Gen Z responders said that dressing their avatars allows them to express their individuality. This same group shared that they feel “more connected to their peers both in the digital and physical worlds” as a result of dressing up their avatars, and 43% of them said they “felt good about themselves.”

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Lee explains how this unique social connection spreads beyond specific platforms for Gen Z. “This can apply to the way that different generations view things like NFTs and cryptocurrency as well,” he says. “Gen Z people are digital native—the internet is just an extension of the real world in a way that I don't think it is for people who are older and were introduced to the internet. So for that reason, when they own things digitally, there's a paradigm shift where they don't feel a difference between the ownership of that digital item [versus a physical item].”

The merging of digital and physical world interactions is also true for Gen Alpha. When Chicago mom ChaCha Watson couldn’t get in touch with her 11-year-old daughter by phone to defrost their dinner, she knew she could find her in Roblox. So Watson entered the game, found her daughter’s avatar, and asked her why she wasn’t picking up the phone.

Although brands have already capitalized on sales opportunities in the metaverse through concerts, virtual events and selling digital products, the real opportunity lies in creating expansive digital environments for fans and users to interact organically so that they want to return. The more commitment and choices brands offer online, the more users will want to engage and spend money there. Like all new technology, it’s important to look at what came before it so we can see how it compares. This helps to conceptualize new possibilities. To that end, Lee says these worlds are just like social media and should be thought of in that context rather than just a game. “You need to consistently refresh the content to make people come back and continue to engage with the brand,” he says.

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