Earlier in the week, we pointed you towards an interesting paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which dealt with the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games. Sadly, it seems many did not get much out of it.
No, judging from the comments inside the post it seems like many made a decision to read simply the headline in the piece (which, being an angle to entice readers into something just a little heavier than we’re comfortable with, could 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 thoughts on the challenge 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 an array of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can see a youtube video from the project actually in operation here)
Gamers are beautiful, so think of this being a love letter to you personally. I really like the way we can circle the wagons as soon as the medium we care for a lot is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal would be to support your creativity in gaming and other digital media forms. In recent days, I needed the pleasure of being interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the subject of research into identity representation which i have already been conducting. This short article, “Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the distinction of experiencing 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, however the title and article misstated my aims. In this brand of my research (I also invent new kinds of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, as well as other expressive works), I am just interested in 2 things:
1) Technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games but in social network, online accounts, and much more.
2) With such technologies to produce 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 not necessarily exclusively). My very own works construct fantastic creatures that change depending on emotional tone of user actions or based upon other people’s perceptions rather than players’. My real efforts, then, are quite far taken from the objective of creating an avatar that “well, seems like [I do]!”
Browse the original article too. And, to save you time and in the spirit of dialogue and genuine want to engage and grow, I offer a summary of 10 follow-up thoughts which i posted towards the comments on the original.
1) On race. The points argued in the article usually do not primarily center around race. Really, because this is about research, the objective is usually to imagine technologies that engage a wider variety of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.
2) On personal preference. The overall game examples discussed represent personal preference. One is capable to prefer Undead that appear to be more mysterious (for example “lich-like” or some other similar Undead types – the idea is actually a male analog for the female Undead that may look far more like the Corpse Bride) than such as a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also allowed to believe that such options would break the overall 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 a lot more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it will be an easy task to simply imagine these attributes – they do not need to become built in rules. Yet, in software they are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how you can do better without allowing players to get rid of the game or slow things down?
3) On the bigger picture. The video game examples I raise are, at some level, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, plus more. The concept is the fact that in real life there is an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities are generally greater than race and gender. Identities change with time, they change according to context. Scientific studies are forward looking – why not imagine what it really way to have technologies that address these problems and the way we could use them effectively. That also includes making coherent gameworlds instead of bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices can be more, or less, successful. Nevertheless the point remains that this can be a *hard* problem.
4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The study mentioned will not focus primarily on external appearance. It concentrates on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and a lot more. As noted, these are generally internal issues. But we could 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 permits AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine that will create technologies that could do more – then deploy them in the most beneficial 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 start to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or even the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. There is a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are conscious of the overall game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” as being a good indie demonstration of this.
6) On characters different from one’s self. The article will not denote discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or propose that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role which is faraway from an actual life conception of identity. Rather, it begins having the ability to happily play characters including elves to mecha pilots. This is a wonderful affordance of numerous games. But a lot more, it can be great to be able to play non-anthropomorphic characters and several other available choices. We have done research for this issue to describe different methods that people associated with their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who desire characters who want characters that are like themselves, other people are “character users” who see their identities as tools, yet 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, no matter what, the types of characters in games are usually relevant to real world social values and categories. It might be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations over and over.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that use other characteristics including moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the type of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not only tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Somebody else mentioned modding and suggested which not modding can be a mark of laziness. Yet, the objective here is actually building new systems that could do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And also this effort is proposed having a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (like those commenting here) can certainly make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are only early instances of artistic outcomes or pilot work built occasionally employing an underlying AI framework We have designed called the GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not due to hubris, but because it is possible to go much further than current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The study mentioned looks at not just games, but additionally at social media sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are a few strong overlaps between them, regardless of the obvious differences. Considering what each allows and is not going to allow can yield valuable insights.
9) For this guy, that guy, and also the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and permitting seamlessly dynamic characters is important. Ideally, one result of this research would be methods to disallow “That Guy” (known as a selected sort of disruptive role-player) to ruin the video game. Nevertheless, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the difficulties available. So can a focus on details rather than general potential of exploring new possibilities. The goal will not be to supply every nuanced and finicky option, but alternatively to illustrate what some potential gaps could be. Individuals are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this should be done in an intelligent manner in which adds meaning and salience for the game. Examples like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are really in order to describe how there are several categories that happen to be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably more than you will find archetypical categories. Let’s think on how to enable these categories in software.
10) In the goal. The greatest goal will not be a totalizing system that may handle any customization. Rather, it really is to understand which 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). From the face of all of this complexity, one choice is to formulate technologies to aid meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – by way of example rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, as well as the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use all of these to state something in regards to the world along with the human condition.
Thank you all for considering these ideas, even individuals who disagree. Your concerns seemed to be clarified, and they also seemed to be exacerbated, but this is just what productive dialogue is focused on.