Earlier in the week, we pointed you towards a fascinating paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which addressed the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games online. Sadly, it seems many did not get much from it.
No, judging through the comments within the post it appears many decided to read simply the headline of your piece (which, for an angle to entice readers into something a little heavier than we’re accustomed to, might have been better-presented on our part), instead of the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. From the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the challenge 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 selection of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can enjoy a youtube video from the project in action here)
Gamers are beautiful, so consider this being a love letter for you. I really like the way you can circle the wagons as soon as the medium we maintain a whole lot is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal is usually 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 subject of research into identity representation which i are already conducting. This informative article, “Chimerical Avatars along with other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of experiencing been reblogged on Kotaku within the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Challenging.” I am just thrilled to discover the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, nevertheless the title and article misstated my aims. Within this collection of my research (I also invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and other expressive works), I am considering a couple of things:
1) Technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games however in social network sites, online accounts, plus more.
2) Using these new technologies to help make avatars for steam 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 own, personal works construct fantastic creatures that change based on emotional tone of user actions or dependant on other people’s perceptions as opposed to the players’. My real efforts, then, can be far taken from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, appears to be [I actually do]!”
Look at the original article too. And, for your benefit and also in the spirit of dialogue and genuine wish to engage and grow, I offer a listing of 10 follow-up thoughts that we posted for the comments around the original.
1) On race. The points argued within the article usually do not primarily center around race. Really, since this is about research, the aim is to imagine technologies that engage a wider range of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and much more.
2) On personal preference. This game examples discussed represent personal preference. One is allowed to prefer Undead that seem to be more mysterious (for example “lich-like” or another similar Undead types – the theory can be a male analog for the female Undead which could look considerably more like the Corpse Bride) than such as a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The first is also able to believe that such options would break this 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 much more, are meaningful dimensions. In real life or tabletop role-playing it could be very easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require being built in 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 destroy the video game or slow things down?
3) In the bigger picture. The game examples I raise are, at some level, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, plus more. The theory is the fact in real life it comes with an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities are much greater than race and gender. Identities change with time, they change depending on context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine just what it ways to have technologies that address these problems and just how we could use them effectively. That also includes making coherent gameworlds and not bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices can be more, or less, successful. However the point remains that this is a *hard* problem.
4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The studies mentioned does not focus primarily on external appearance. It concentrates on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, plus more. As noted, these are internal issues. But we can go further. New computational approaches are possible that do not reify social identity categories as discrete sets of attributes or statistics. Categories might 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 may do more – after which deploy them in the most beneficial ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social network.
5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for may also help to create fantastic games begin to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, and even the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. You will find a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may know of the video game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” being a good indie illustration of this.
6) On characters distinctive from one’s self. The article fails to indicate discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or advise that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a part that is faraway from a true life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters which range from elves to mecha pilots. This is a wonderful affordance of many games. But a lot more, it is great so that you can play non-anthropomorphic characters and several additional options. We have done research with this issue to describe various ways that individuals relevant to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who would like characters that want characters that are like themselves, others are “character users” who see their identities as tools, as well as others still are “character players” who use their characters to discover imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is actually the nutshell version). However, no matter what, the sorts of characters in games are usually relevant 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 like moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is exactly the type of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not only tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Another person mentioned modding and suggested which not modding could be a mark of laziness. Yet, the goal the following is actually building new systems that will do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And also this effort is proposed using a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (for example those commenting here) can certainly make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are simply early examples of artistic outcomes or pilot work built occasionally employing an underlying AI framework I actually have designed known as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is named the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but because it is easy to go much beyond current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The research mentioned looks at not merely games, and also at social networks, online accounts, and avatars. There are a few strong overlaps between the two, despite the obvious differences. Looking at what each allows and will not allow can yield valuable insights.
9) With this guy, that guy, and the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and making it possible for seamlessly dynamic characters is important. Ideally, one results of this research would be approaches to disallow “That Guy” (described as a particular kind of disruptive role-player) to ruin the video game. That said, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the issues at hand. So can a center on details instead of the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The goal is not really to offer you every nuanced and finicky option, but alternatively 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 has to be carried out in an intelligent way that adds meaning and salience towards the game. Examples just like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are actually simply to describe how there are many categories that happen to be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably a lot more than you can find archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.
10) In the goal. The supreme goal is just not a totalizing system that could handle any customization. Rather, it can be to realize that the identities in games, virtual worlds, social networking sites, and related media appear 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 this complexity, one choice is to formulate technologies to back up meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – as an example rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and also the tinting of elves, let’s think concerning how to use all of these to say something about the world as well as the human condition.
Thanks all for considering these ideas, even those that disagree. Your concerns could have been clarified, and they also seemed to be exacerbated, but this is exactly what productive dialogue is all about.