Haley Hatfield wins Top Paper award for research on racial bias in virtual reality

Haley Hatfield, a PhD student from El Dorado, Kansas, recently was awarded Top Paper honors from The Human Communication and Technology Division (HCTD) of the National Communication Association (NCA).

“I was a bit in shock, to be honest,” Hatfield said. “I care so much about this project and put so much of myself into it.”

Hatfield, along with her co-authors, submitted a paper titled: “Confronting Whiteness through Virtual Humans: A review of 20 years of research in prejudice and racial bias using virtual environments.”

The paper analyzes 53 studies that use virtual humans in the realm of video games or virtual reality and highlights areas where previous research did not display a historical understanding of racial inequality.

“When we interact with technology, it is easy to see it as being neutral or incapable of having biases,” Hatfield said of her research team’s findings. “It can be easy to forget that technology is created by biased humans and subsequently used by biased humans. And in many cases, these biases can become replicated within virtual spaces.”

Hatfield will present her findings to fellow researchers later this year in Seattle. (photo submitted)

Hatfield’s research is conducted in the Games and Virtual Environments Lab (GAVEL) with Grace Ahn and in the Brain, Body and Media Lab (BBAM) with Glenna Read. Hatfield’s focus is understanding the relationship between virtual reality and attitudes attributed to systemic racism and white privilege.

“I was so impressed with Haley’s tenacity and motivation,” said Ahn. “She always puts in a great deal of thought into her writing and every new draft she showed me was dramatically better than the earlier one.”

The paper emphasizes that virtual reality gives users a unique chance to feel experiences from others’ perspective. Hatfield says that opportunity makes it all the more important to be responsible and informed when portraying race in virtual environments.

“Moving forward, it will take a lot more listening from those who have been in the majority for so long and for those same people to continuously work to help uncover and responsibly dismantle systems of oppression within research and their personal lives,” said Hatfield.

Much of the research for this project occurred in the midst of the pandemic, when team collaboration was more difficult and feedback could be constrained due to distance. Ahn says those challenges made the work all the more impressive.

“She (Hatfield) is asking critical questions that force us to re-examine how we view and discuss technological advancements in communication, and I was glad that the reviewers agreed with us in seeing the significance of those discussions,” said Ahn. “We hope that this paper serves as an impetus to begin these difficult but important discussions. VR is a new and cool technology, but technological innovations alone are unable to resolve the problem of structural inequity and racism.”

This paper was Hatfield’s first submission to NCA. She will present the findings in person at NCA’s annual convention in Seattle in November.

Hatfield is in the AdPR track of the PhD program and aspires to become a tenured research professor where she can lead her own VR lab.

Grady PHD Creative Collective 8.0 explores media lives and attitudes of Gen Z

Seven senior advertising majors had the opportunity to join together as Grady’s 8th Creative Collective team, sponsored by PHD, the worldwide media agency.

This year, the team spent six months looking into the media lives of 18- to 25-year-olds, part of the elusive Generation Z. They conducted secondary research and more than 110 in-depth interviews and panels as they explored three main topic areas including the evolution of entertainment, privacy and security, and the value of ads. The team shared their insights with more than 60 agency professionals at PHD’s New York office on Friday, April 12.

Despite the long evenings in Grady spent digging for the most compelling media and advertising insights, as well as the extensive preparation leading up to the big presentation, the team wouldn’t trade the experience for anything, according to senior Akyra Kelley.

“Knowing that agencies like PHD value what Grady students can do makes this experience so fulfilling. Being able to travel to New York to present a project that we had been working on for nearly six months was the highlight of my time in Grady,” Kelley said.

Through a competitive process, Kelley and her fellow advertising seniors Elizabeth Calloway, Ellie Harding, D.J. Herr, Bryson Hollomon, Owen McDaniel and James Ogletree, were selected to participate in the program.

“Working with PHD was an incredible opportunity for professional growth; I learned a great deal about future trends within the industry,” said Holloman.

The team also gained advice from PHD New York President Rob DiGiovanni and Avin Narasimhan, U.S. Head of Communications Planning, who met with the them after the presentation and shared their take on the importance of implementing an effective media plan into any successful campaign.

The presentation took place in front of a packed house at the PHD offices in New York City.

Karen King, a Jim Kennedy Professor of New Media and professor of advertising, led the partnership for the 8th consecutive year. King said,“We are grateful for the opportunity that this partnership with PHD gives our students to conduct research and do a deep-dive into the findings looking for insights. PHD has come to expect an in-depth professional presentation from our teams and, once again, these students did Grady proud.”

In the evening following the presentation, the 8.0 team met with other Grady advertising alumni, many of whom had been on one of the previous Grady PHD Creative Collective teams. This gave these soon-to-be graduates the chance to learn more about what it is like to live and work in New York City and enter the advertising industry.