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Earlier in the week, we pointed you towards a fascinating paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which managed the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games online. Sadly, it appears to be many did not get much out of it.

No, judging from the comments inside the post it appears many chose 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 learn either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. In the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas on the matter 100 %, 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 view a youtube video of the project in action here)

Gamers are beautiful, so consider this like a love letter to you personally. I really like how we can circle the wagons once the medium we maintain so much is assailed. So, without a doubt directly: my goal would be to support your creativity in gaming along with other digital media forms. In recent days, I had the pleasure to be interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the topic of research into identity representation which i are already conducting. This informative article, “Chimerical Avatars and also other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of getting been reblogged on Kotaku within the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Hard.” I am thrilled to find out the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, however the title and article misstated my aims. Within this collection of my research (In addition, i invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, along with other expressive works), I am just considering a couple of things:

1) New technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games nevertheless in social network, online accounts, and more.

2) Utilizing these new technologies to create best steam avatars and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.

What 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 certainly not exclusively). My very 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, are usually far removed from the objective of creating an avatar that “well, appears like [I do]!”

See the original article too. And, to save you time as well as in the spirit of dialogue and genuine need to engage and grow, I offer a listing of 10 follow-up thoughts that we posted to the comments on the original.

1) On race. The points argued within the article will not primarily center around race. Really, because this is about research, the target would be to imagine technologies that engage a wider selection of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, plus more.

2) On personal preference. The game examples discussed represent personal preference. The initial one is permitted to prefer Undead that seem to be more mysterious (such as “lich-like” or any other similar Undead types – the thought can be a male analog towards the female Undead which may look far more such as the Corpse Bride) than just like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also able to believe that such options would break the game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven by the game’s lore. The bigger point is the fact issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, plus more, are meaningful dimensions. In real life or tabletop role-playing it could be simple to simply imagine these attributes – they do not need to get built into rules. Yet, in software they are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to interrupt the game or slow things down?

3) On the bigger picture. This game examples I raise are, to some extent, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and much more. The thought is the fact in the real world there is an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities are generally more than race and gender. Identities change as time passes, they change based on context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine what it really means to have technologies that address these problems and just how we could use them effectively. Which includes making coherent gameworlds rather than bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices may be more, or less, successful. Nevertheless the point remains that it is a *hard* problem.

4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The investigation mentioned fails to focus primarily on external appearance. It is focused on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, plus more. As noted, they are internal issues. But we can easily go further. New computational approaches are possible which do not reify social identity categories as discrete groups of attributes or statistics. Categories can be modeled more fluidly, and new game mechanics may result. My GRIOT system enables AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine and create technologies that could do more – and after that deploy them in the most efficient ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social network sites.

5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for may also help to help make fantastic games commence to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or perhaps the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. You will discover a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may recognize this game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” being a good indie example of this.

6) On characters distinctive from one’s self. This article fails to point out discomfort with playing characters such as elves with pale skin, or suggest that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a part that is far from a real life conception of identity. Rather, it begins having the ability to happily play characters including elves to mecha pilots. This really is a wonderful affordance of many games. But much more, it is great so as to play non-anthropomorphic characters and a lot of additional options. I have got done research on this issue to explain various ways that individuals associated with their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who desire characters who want characters which can be like themselves, other people are “character users” who see their identities as tools, among others still are “character players” who use their characters to explore imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is the nutshell version). However, regardless of what, the sorts of characters in games tend to be linked to actual 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 options to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the kind of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not simply tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Someone else mentioned modding and suggested which not modding might be a mark of laziness. Yet, the goal here is actually building new systems that will do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And this effort is proposed using a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (including those commenting here) could make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are merely early examples of artistic outcomes or pilot work built sometimes utilizing an underlying AI framework I have designed referred to as GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but since it is easy to go much further than current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The study mentioned looks at not simply games, but additionally at social network sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are several strong overlaps between them, inspite of the obvious differences. Looking at what each allows and will not allow can yield valuable insights.

9) On this guy, that guy, and also the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and permitting seamlessly dynamic characters is essential. Ideally, one upshot of this research will be strategies to disallow “That Guy” (referred to as a selected sort of disruptive role-player) to ruin this game. In spite of this, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the problems accessible. So can a center on details rather than the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The aim will not be to provide every nuanced and finicky option, but instead to illustrate what some potential gaps could be. Folks are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this must be completed in a wise manner in which adds meaning and salience on the game. Examples like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are actually only to describe how there are numerous categories which can be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably a lot more than there are archetypical categories. Let’s think on how to enable these categories in software.

10) Around the goal. The greatest goal is just not a totalizing system that could handle any customization. Rather, it really is to comprehend that our identities in games, virtual worlds, social networking 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). In the face of all of this complexity, one option is to build up technologies to aid meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for instance as opposed to just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use every one of these to express something about the world and also the human condition.

Thanks a lot all for considering these ideas, even people who disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, plus they seemed to be exacerbated, but this is just what productive dialogue is focused on.