Earlier in the week, we pointed you towards an interesting paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which handled the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games. Sadly, it seems like many failed to get much out of it.
No, judging by the comments in the post it appears to be many chosen to read simply the headline of the piece (which, being an angle to entice readers into something a little bit heavier than we’re used to, might have been better-presented on our part), and never the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. In the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas on the matter entirely, then, he’s been so kind regarding present this post.
Top: A screenshot from Harrell’s interactive game/poem “Loss, Undersea” (left), and a selection of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can view a video in the project in action here)
Gamers are beautiful, so consider this like a love letter for you. I adore how we can circle the wagons if the medium we look after a lot is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal is usually to support your creativity in gaming along with other digital media forms. In recent days, I had the pleasure being interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the subject of research into identity representation i have been conducting. This post, “Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of having been reblogged on Kotaku underneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Hard.” I am thrilled to view the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, nevertheless the title and article misstated my aims. Within this type of my research (In addition, i invent new kinds of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and also other expressive works), I am just thinking about 2 things:
1) New technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games but also in social network, online accounts, plus more.
2) Utilizing these technologies to produce 184px avatar and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.
A Few Things I have called “Avatar Art,” could make critical and expressive statements regarding identity construction themes including changing moods, social scene, marginality, exclusion, aesthetic style, and power (yes, including gender and race but most certainly not exclusively). My works construct fantastic creatures that change depending on emotional tone of user actions or in relation to other people’s perceptions as opposed to the players’. My real efforts, then, are quite far taken from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, seems like [I really do]!”
Look at the original article too. And, to save you time and in the spirit of dialogue and genuine wish to engage and grow, I offer a listing of 10 follow-up thoughts i posted for the comments around the original.
1) On race. The points argued inside the article do not primarily revolve around race. Really, as this is about research, the aim is to imagine technologies that engage a wider range of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.
2) On personal preference. The video game examples discussed represent personal preference. One is capable to prefer Undead that appear more mysterious (like “lich-like” or any other similar Undead types – the thought is a male analog to the female Undead which can look much more just like the Corpse Bride) than just like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The first is also permitted to assume that such options would break this game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven from the game’s lore. The greater point is the fact issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it could be very easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not need to be built into rules. Yet, in software these are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to get rid of the video game or slow things down?
3) In the bigger picture. This game examples I raise are, to some degree, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and a lot more. The thought is in the real world it comes with an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities tend to be over race and gender. Identities change after a while, they change depending on context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine what it ways to have technologies that address these complaints and exactly how we could utilize them effectively. That also includes making coherent gameworlds instead of bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices could be more, or less, successful. However the point remains that this can be a *hard* problem.
4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The investigation mentioned will not focus primarily on external appearance. It focuses on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, plus more. As noted, these are typically internal issues. But we can easily go further. New computational approaches are possible which do not reify social identity categories as discrete sets of attributes or statistics. Categories could be modeled more fluidly, and new game mechanics may result. My GRIOT system allows for AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine that will create technologies that will do more – and after that deploy them in the most efficient ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social media.
5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for also may help to help make fantastic games begin to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or maybe the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. There is a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are aware of the video game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” like a good indie example of this.
6) On characters distinctive from one’s self. The content does not point to discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or claim that you ought to inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role which is far away from a real life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters including elves to mecha pilots. This is a wonderful affordance of numerous games. But even more, it can be great so that you can play non-anthropomorphic characters and several other available choices. I have done research about this issue to describe different ways that men and women related to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who desire characters that are looking characters that are like themselves, others are “character users” who see their identities as tools, yet others still are “character players” who use their characters to discover imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is basically the nutshell version). However, whatever, the kinds of characters in games are frequently relevant to real life social values and categories. It could be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations again and again.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that utilize other characteristics including moral options to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the form of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not merely tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Other people mentioned modding and suggested that does not modding can be a mark of laziness. Yet, the aim the following is actually building new systems that may do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And also this effort is proposed using a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (for example those commenting here) will make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are simply early examples of artistic outcomes or pilot work built occasionally employing an underlying AI framework I actually have designed referred to as GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not because of hubris, but because it is possible to go much further than current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The study mentioned studies not just games, but also at social networks, online accounts, and avatars. There are some strong overlaps between the two, regardless of the obvious differences. Considering what each allows and fails to allow can yield valuable insights.
9) About this guy, that guy, and also the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and enabling seamlessly dynamic characters is vital. Ideally, one results of this research could be approaches to disallow “That Guy” (referred to as a particular kind of disruptive role-player) to ruin the overall game. That said, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the issues available. So can a give attention to details rather than general potential of exploring new possibilities. The goal is just not to supply every nuanced and finicky option, but rather to illustrate what some potential gaps could possibly be. Individuals are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this should be completed in a smart way in which adds meaning and salience towards the game. Examples such as the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall really are simply to describe how there are several categories which are transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably more than there are actually archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.
10) Around the goal. The best goal is not really a totalizing system that could handle any customization. Rather, it really is to realize that the identities in games, virtual worlds, social network sites, and related media appear in an ecology of behavior, artifacts, attitudes, software and hardware infrastructure, activities (like gaming), institutional values and biases, personal values and biases, systems of classification, and cognitive processing (the imagination). In the face of all of this complexity, one option is to develop technologies to assist meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – by way of example rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and also the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use all of these to say something regarding the world and also the human condition.
Thanks a lot all for considering these ideas, even individuals who disagree. Your concerns could have been clarified, and so they seemed to be exacerbated, but and this is what productive dialogue is focused on.