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 online. Sadly, it seems many failed to get much out of it.
No, judging from the comments within the post it seems like many chosen to read simply the headline of your piece (which, for an angle to entice readers into something a little heavier than we’re used to, could have been better-presented on our part), rather than the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Within the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas on the matter completely, then, he’s been so kind as to present this post.
Top: A screenshot from Harrell’s interactive game/poem “Loss, Undersea” (left), and a range of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can watch a youtube video from the project actually in operation here)
Gamers are beautiful, so consider this being a love letter to you. I love how you can circle the wagons once the medium we look after a lot is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal is always to support your creativity in gaming and other digital media forms. In recent days, I needed the pleasure for being interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the subject of research into identity representation which i have been conducting. This article, “Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the distinction of getting been reblogged on Kotaku under the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Tough.” I am thrilled to find out the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, however the title and article misstated my aims. In this type of my research (I also invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, along with other expressive works), I am just thinking about two things:
1) New technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games nevertheless in social network, online accounts, plus more.
2) By using these technologies to help make Steam avatars 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 not necessarily exclusively). My own works construct fantastic creatures that change based upon emotional tone of user actions or based upon other people’s perceptions rather than the players’. My real efforts, then, can be far taken off the objective of creating an avatar that “well, appears to be [I truly do]!”
Browse the original article too. And, for your convenience and also in the spirit of dialogue and genuine wish to engage and grow, I offer a summary of 10 follow-up thoughts that I posted for the comments around the original.
1) On race. The points argued in the article will not primarily center around race. Really, since this is about research, the goal is to imagine technologies that engage a wider variety of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.
2) On personal preference. This game examples discussed represent personal preference. The first is capable to prefer Undead that appear more mysterious (including “lich-like” or another similar Undead types – the theory is really a male analog on the female Undead which can look a lot more like the Corpse Bride) than similar to a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also allowed to think that such options would break this game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven by the game’s lore. The larger point is that issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and much more, are meaningful dimensions. In real life or tabletop role-playing it will be simple to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require to be that are part of rules. Yet, in software they can be implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how you can do better without allowing players to get rid of the overall game or slow things down?
3) About the bigger picture. The overall game examples I raise are, at some level, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and a lot more. The thought is the fact in real life there is an incredible quantity of nuance for representing identity. Identities are generally a lot more than race and gender. Identities change as time passes, they change based upon context. Scientific studies are forward looking – why not imagine exactly what it means to have technologies that address these issues and exactly how we are able to make use of them effectively. That includes making coherent gameworlds and not bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices may be more, or less, successful. However the point remains that it is a *hard* problem.
4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The study mentioned does not focus primarily on external appearance. It targets issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and a lot more. As noted, they are internal issues. But we could go further. New computational approaches are possible that do not reify social identity categories as discrete sets of attributes or statistics. Categories can 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 could do more – after which deploy them in the most effective ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social networking.
5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for also may help to create fantastic games set out to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or perhaps the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. There is a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are conscious of this game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” as a good indie demonstration of this.
6) On characters distinct from one’s self. The content is not going to point out discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or advise that you should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a part that is not even close to a genuine life conception of identity. Rather, it begins having the ability to happily play characters including elves to mecha pilots. It is a wonderful affordance of countless games. But even more, it really is great so that you can play non-anthropomorphic characters and a lot of other choices. I have got done research with this issue to clarify different methods that men and women relevant to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who want characters that want characters that are like themselves, others are “character users” who see their identities as tools, among others still are “character players” who use their characters to learn imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (here is the nutshell version). However, irrespective of what, the kinds of characters in games tend to be associated with real life social values and categories. It can be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations repeatedly.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that utilize other characteristics like moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the form of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not just tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Other people mentioned modding and suggested which not modding could be a mark of laziness. Yet, the target this is actually building new systems that could do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. Which effort is proposed by using a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (like those commenting here) can make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are only early types of artistic outcomes or pilot work built in some cases using an underlying AI framework I have designed referred to as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a consequence of hubris, but because it is possible to go much further than current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The investigation mentioned looks at not simply games, but additionally at social networks, online accounts, and avatars. There are some strong overlaps between them, inspite of the obvious differences. Taking a look at what each allows and does not allow can yield valuable insights.
9) On this guy, that guy, as well as the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and allowing for seamlessly dynamic characters is important. Ideally, one outcome of this research will be ways to disallow “That Guy” (referred to as a certain sort of disruptive role-player) to ruin the game. In spite of this, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the issues at hand. So can a center on details rather than general potential of exploring new possibilities. The target is just not to offer every nuanced and finicky option, but to illustrate what some potential gaps might be. Everyone is complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this must be done in a sensible method that adds meaning and salience to the game. Examples such as the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are very in order to describe how there are numerous categories that happen to be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably over there are actually archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.
10) About the goal. The ultimate goal is not a totalizing system that will handle any customization. Rather, it is actually to appreciate which our identities in games, virtual worlds, social network sites, and related media exist 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). Within the face of all this complexity, one choice is to build up technologies to support meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for example rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, as well as the tinting of elves, let’s think on how to use many of these to state something about the world and also the human condition.
Thanks a lot all for considering these ideas, even those that disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, and they might have been exacerbated, but this is what productive dialogue is focused on.