Earlier this week, we pointed you towards a fascinating paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which handled the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games online. Sadly, it seems many did not get much from it.
No, judging from the comments from the post it appears to be many chose to read simply the headline of your piece (which, being an angle to entice readers into something a bit heavier than we’re comfortable with, might have been better-presented on our part), rather than the suggestion to learn either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Inside the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas on the challenge 100 %, then, he’s been so kind with regards to 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 enjoy a relevant video from the project in action here)
Gamers are beautiful, so consider this as being a love letter for you. I like how we can circle the wagons if the medium we take care of a great deal 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 needed the pleasure of being interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the topic of research into identity representation i have already been conducting. This informative article, “Chimerical Avatars as well as 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 Hard.” I am just thrilled to see the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, even so the title and article misstated my aims. With this brand of my research (In addition, i invent new kinds of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and other expressive works), I am just interested in 2 things:
1) New technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games but also in social network sites, online accounts, and a lot more.
2) Using these technologies to produce best steam avatars and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.
Things I have called “Avatar Art,” will 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 on emotional tone of user actions or dependant on other people’s perceptions rather than the players’. My real efforts, then, are very far pulled from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, appears like [I truly do]!”
Look at the original article too. And, for your benefit and also in the spirit of dialogue and genuine desire to engage and grow, I offer a summary of 10 follow-up thoughts which i posted for the comments about the original.
1) On race. The points argued within the article will not primarily center around race. Really, as this is about research, the goal is always to imagine technologies that engage a wider variety of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, plus more.
2) On personal preference. The overall game examples discussed represent personal preference. The first is able to prefer Undead that appear more mysterious (such as “lich-like” or another similar Undead types – the idea is a male analog towards the female Undead which can look far more like the Corpse Bride) than such as a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also allowed to assume that such options would break the overall game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven by the game’s lore. The larger point is the fact that issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and a lot more, are meaningful dimensions. In real life or tabletop role-playing it might be an easy task to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require to be included in rules. Yet, in software these are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine the best way to do better without allowing players to destroy this game or slow things down?
3) In 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 concept is in the real world it comes with an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities are far more than race and gender. Identities change with time, they change based on context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine exactly what it means to have technologies that address these problems and exactly how we can rely on them effectively. Which includes making coherent gameworlds instead of bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices may be more, or less, successful. But the point remains that this can be a *hard* problem.
4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The research 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 go further. New computational approaches are possible that do not reify social identity categories as discrete groups of attributes or statistics. Categories could be modeled more fluidly, and new game mechanics may result. My GRIOT system permits AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine and create technologies that can do more – and after that deploy them in the most beneficial ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social media.
5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for also may help to produce fantastic games set out to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or even the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. There exists a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are aware of the game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” as a good indie illustration of this.
6) On characters distinct from one’s self. The content does not denote discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or claim that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role which is faraway from an actual life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters which range from elves to mecha pilots. This can be a wonderful affordance of several games. But even more, it really is great so as to play non-anthropomorphic characters and several other options. I have done research about this issue to describe alternative methods that folks linked to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who desire characters who want characters which are like themselves, others are “character users” who see their identities as tools, and others still are “character players” who use their characters to explore imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is basically the nutshell version). However, regardless of what, the sorts of characters in games are frequently linked to actual social values and categories. It could be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations time and time again.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that utilize other characteristics such as moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is exactly the kind of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not just tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Somebody else mentioned modding and suggested that does not modding may be a mark of laziness. Yet, the target here is actually building new systems that will do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And this effort is proposed having a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (such as those commenting here) will make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are only early types of artistic outcomes or pilot work built in some instances using an underlying AI framework I actually have designed known as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is called the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a consequence of hubris, but since it is easy to go much further than current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The study mentioned looks at not just games, but also at social network sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are many strong overlaps between them, in spite of the obvious differences. Considering what each allows and fails to allow can yield valuable insights.
9) For this guy, that guy, along with the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and permitting seamlessly dynamic characters is vital. Ideally, one outcome of this research could be methods to disallow “That Guy” (referred to as a particular type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the game. Nevertheless, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the problems at hand. So can a focus on details rather than the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The goal is just not to provide every nuanced and finicky option, but alternatively to illustrate what some potential gaps may be. Folks are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this should be carried out in a wise way in which adds meaning and salience for the game. Examples like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are really simply to describe how there are several categories that happen to 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) In the goal. The greatest goal is not a totalizing system that can handle any customization. Rather, it can be to understand that our identities in games, virtual worlds, social networks, and related media take place 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 this complexity, one choice is to build up technologies to aid meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for instance rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use all of these to mention something in regards to the world as well as the human condition.
Thanks all for considering these ideas, even those who disagree. Your concerns could have been clarified, and so they seemed to be exacerbated, but this is exactly what productive dialogue is all about.