Earlier in the week, we pointed you towards an appealing paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which addressed the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games online. Sadly, it seems like many did not get much out of it.
No, judging with the comments inside the post it seems many chose to read simply the headline of the piece (which, as being an angle to entice readers into something a little bit heavier than we’re accustomed to, could have been better-presented on our part), and not the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Inside the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the matter completely, then, he’s been so kind concerning present this post.
Top: A screenshot from Harrell’s interactive game/poem “Loss, Undersea” (left), and a variety of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can see a video from the project in action here)
Gamers are beautiful, so think of this like a love letter for you. I love how you can circle the wagons as soon as the medium we look after so much is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal is usually to support your creativity in gaming and also other digital media forms. In recent days, I needed the pleasure being interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the topic of research into identity representation that we happen to be conducting. This short article, “Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the distinction of obtaining been reblogged on Kotaku underneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Tough.” I am just thrilled to find out the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, nevertheless the title and article misstated my aims. Within this collection of my research (Furthermore, i invent new kinds of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and other expressive works), I am enthusiastic about two things:
1) Technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not just in games nevertheless in social network, online accounts, and a lot more.
2) With such technologies to create Steam avatars and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.
The 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 definitely not exclusively). My own works construct fantastic creatures that change based upon emotional tone of user actions or based upon other people’s perceptions instead of the players’. My real efforts, then, are usually far removed from the goal of creating an avatar that “well, appears to be [I truly do]!”
See the original article too. And, for your benefit as well as in the spirit of dialogue and genuine desire to engage and grow, I offer a list of 10 follow-up thoughts i posted on the comments on the original.
1) On race. The points argued from the article tend not to primarily revolve around race. Really, because this is about research, the objective is usually to imagine technologies that engage a wider selection of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.
2) On personal preference. The video game examples discussed represent personal preference. The first is able to prefer Undead that seem to be more mysterious (such as “lich-like” or other similar Undead types – the concept is actually a male analog towards the female Undead which can look a lot more just like the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also permitted to assume that such options would break the video game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven with the game’s lore. The larger point is issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and much more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it could be simple to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require to be built into rules. Yet, in software they may be implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to interrupt the video game or slow things down?
3) In the bigger picture. The overall game examples I raise are, to some extent, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, plus more. The theory is the fact that in the real world it comes with an incredible volume of nuance for representing identity. Identities tend to be over race and gender. Identities change with time, they change based upon context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine just what it methods to have technologies that address these complaints and exactly how we could utilize them effectively. That features making coherent gameworlds instead of bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices might 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 investigation mentioned will not focus primarily on external appearance. It is focused on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and a lot more. As noted, these are typically internal issues. But we are able to go further. New computational approaches are possible that do not reify social identity categories as discrete groups of attributes or statistics. Categories may 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 and produce technologies that could do more – then deploy them in the very best ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social network sites.
5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for also may help to make fantastic games begin 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 recognize the overall game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” as being a good indie demonstration of this.
6) On characters distinctive from one’s self. The content will not denote discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or propose that you ought to inherently feel uncomfortable playing a part that is certainly far away from a true life conception of identity. Rather, it begins having the ability to happily play characters starting from elves to mecha pilots. This can be a wonderful affordance of numerous games. But more, it is great in order to play non-anthropomorphic characters and several other choices. We have done research about this issue to illustrate various ways that men and women linked to 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, as well as others still are “character players” who use their characters to explore imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is actually the nutshell version). However, irrespective of what, the types of characters in games are often linked to actual social values and categories. It can be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations again and again.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that use other characteristics for example moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the kind of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not merely tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Somebody else mentioned modding and suggested which not modding might be a mark of laziness. Yet, the target this is actually building new systems that may 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) can make them better still! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are simply early instances of artistic outcomes or pilot work built occasionally utilizing an underlying AI framework I have designed called the GRIOT system. This endeavor is named the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not because of hubris, but because it is easy to go much beyond current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The studies mentioned studies not only games, and also at social media sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are several strong overlaps between the two, despite the obvious differences. Looking at what each allows and is not going to allow can yield valuable insights.
9) With this guy, that guy, as well as the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and enabling seamlessly dynamic characters is essential. Ideally, one upshot of this research can be strategies to disallow “That Guy” (known as a particular sort of disruptive role-player) to ruin this game. In spite of this, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the difficulties accessible. So can a focus on details rather than general potential of exploring new possibilities. The objective is not to supply every nuanced and finicky option, but alternatively to illustrate what some potential gaps could possibly be. Everyone is complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this has to be carried out a wise way in which adds meaning and salience to the game. Examples such as the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are actually just to describe how there are lots of categories that happen to be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably greater than there are archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.
10) Around the goal. The ultimate goal is not a totalizing system that will handle any customization. Rather, it is to appreciate that the identities in games, virtual worlds, social networking sites, and related media happens to 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). Inside the face of all of this complexity, one option is to develop technologies to back up 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 most of these to mention something about the world along with the human condition.
Thank you all for considering these ideas, even those that disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, and they may have been exacerbated, but this is what productive dialogue is focused on.