Maxwell Foxman Examines "The Elephant in the Zoom"

Before Facebook builds its “metaverse”—a virtual reality world where one day we might all work and communicate together—Maxwell Foxman would like to point out a few problems with online workspaces.

For starters, nearly half of professionals working remotely report exhaustion after a long day of videoconferencing. Also, research shows Zoom fatigue disproportionately affects women and people of color.

But perhaps worst of all, according to Foxman, is that we don’t yet know the full impact of virtual meetings on well-being, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.

Max Foxman (credit: Cheyenne Thorpe, BS ’19 (journalism)) “We’re spending so much more time on Zoom,” says Foxman, an assistant professor of media studies and game studies for the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. “If we’re going to consistently be working virtually, how can we make the experience better? What can we do to improve the way people interact in virtual meetings?”

To explore these questions, the National Science Foundation awarded a $1.5 million grant to Foxman and researchers from Michigan State University, Southern Illinois University, the University of Wisconsin, Bethany Lutheran College in Minnesota, and Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. They will investigate the toll of virtual interaction on employees who rely on remote meetings and will also examine questions of equity and inclusion raised by videoconferencing.

“These are people’s everyday lives, and possibly how they are making a living,” Foxman says. “As virtual meetings become more common, people want to feel empowered to perform their best as a worker. Ideally this research would empower all sorts of individuals to feel like they can bring their voice to the table.”

It’s no secret that technology can amplify existing inequities while creating new ones. While studying developers of virtual reality (VR) content, for example, Foxman learned of a gender-based problem: male programmers often set the point of view in the virtual world at a height too tall for many female users, who would become nauseous while using the interface devices.

Many of the equity and inclusion issues that plague videoconferencing platforms are an extension of the problems people encounter face-to-face. For example, Foxman cited the stereotype of a white male interrupting a coworker who feels less privileged in the workspace. In Zoom, where the audio automatically cuts off the previous speaker when someone else starts talking over them, this problem can become even more pronounced.

“If you’re interrupted,” Foxman says, “the auto cutoff makes it harder to get a word in edgewise.”

Another concern: women of color who carefully curate their professional demeanor to fit in at work may feel self-conscious about adopting a more casual style of dress on Zoom—especially if that attire is heavily influenced by their cultural heritage. On the other hand, dressing as if they were in the office can make them feel just as self-conscious when coworkers are wearing T-shirts and pajama pants.

To map how video meetings affect members of diverse work teams, the multiyear study will focus on a uniquely appropriate group: video game developers. Employees in the $160 billion gaming industry rely heavily on virtual interactions and many struggle in workplaces rife with social-equity issues.

“When you have an industry that’s very much dominated by and catering to a very specific type of player—in the US, often male, white, and moderately affluent—even with the best intentions it’s difficult for a developer to imagine what someone with disabilities or who is not them might want or need,” Foxman says.

The problem needs to be addressed, he says, because game development software is interlinked with the VR technologies that, according to Facebook’s plan, will drive remote workplaces of the future.

“These technologies are inherently influenced by the game industry,” says Foxman, whose research explores the intersections between games, the gaming industry, and non-game contexts. “You can’t talk about livestreaming culture or social media culture or internet culture without talking about games.”

Foxman’s interdisciplinary research team will conduct interviews and mine Twitter data to identify concerns and criticisms regarding virtual meetings. Once they’ve pinpointed the most troublesome aspects of video meetings, they’ll run experiments to observe how these situations unfold in virtual spaces.

The goal is to develop a prototype for more equitable and inclusive remote workspaces. For example, Foxman says, VR meetings could allow users to interact through computer-generated avatars instead of staring at video versions of themselves and their colleagues, reducing the potential for gender- or race-based biases to emerge.

“If we can identify the key concerns or intervene by building a prototype that can work its way into a platform,” Foxman says, “it’s a simple, grounded way to meaningfully influence these spaces.”

A self-described “gamifier extraordinaire,” Foxman is fascinated by the ways that games influence other areas of life. His first published paper examined MTV’s attempt to gamify its Get Out the Vote campaign in 2012, when the network created a desktop and mobile game that rewarded youth for getting involved in the presidential election. After completing his PhD in communications at Columbia University in New York in 2018, he came across the perfect job listing: a game studies professor with an interest in journalism, VR, and gamification.

Since joining the UO, Foxman has helped expand the journalism school’s growing body of research on gaming and VR. In addition to the NSF grant, Foxman is collaborating with faculty and graduate students across campus to create a research lab for esports and games. He’s also coauthoring a book on game journalism with David B. Nieborg, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. Other collaborators on the aforementioned projects include grantees Rabindra Ratan, Adam Sulzdorf-Liszkiewicz, Alex P. Leith, David Beyea, Vivian Hsueh Huan Chen, and Brian Klebig; and EGR Lab members Amanda Cote, John Clithero, Tara Fickle, Henry Wear, Md Waseq Ur Rahman, Jared Hansen, Brandon Harris, Önder Can, along with new members Shane Burrell, Andy Wilson and Tabitha Fairchild.

He admits his interest in games isn’t purely academic.

“I practice what I preach,” Foxman says. “I gamify everything in life, from the work I do to my exercise.”

As Facebook and other tech giants race to become the first ruler of the metaverse, Foxman hopes they’ll avoid reproducing the same inequities women, people of color, and disabled people now face on Zoom.

“In the best possible version of things, companies like Facebook will see such research and try to integrate it into their own products,” he says. “We’ll see if they actually do.”

—By Nicole Krueger, BA ’99 (Clark Honors College, news editorial), a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications such as the Tennessean, the (Salem) Statesman Journal, and Empowered Learner magazine

—Photos by Cheyenne Thorpe, BS ’19 (journalism)