Earlier this week, we pointed you towards an appealing paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which dealt with the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in online games. Sadly, it seems many failed to get much out of it.
No, judging with the comments inside the post it seems like many chose to read simply the headline in the piece (which, as 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 learn either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Within the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas on the issue 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 an array of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can watch a video of the project actually in operation here)
Gamers are beautiful, so consider this as being a love letter for your needs. I like the way we can circle the wagons when the medium we care for a great deal is assailed. So, without a doubt directly: my goal would be to support your creativity in gaming as well as 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 I have already been conducting. This informative article, “Chimerical Avatars and 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 Difficult.” I am thrilled to view the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, however the title and article misstated my aims. In this particular line of my research (I also invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and other expressive works), I am just thinking about 2 things:
1) Technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games but in social network, online accounts, and a lot more.
2) Utilizing these technologies to produce Steam avatars and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.
Things 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 most certainly not exclusively). My works construct fantastic creatures that change according to emotional tone of user actions or in relation to other people’s perceptions instead of the players’. My real efforts, then, are usually far taken from the goal of creating an avatar that “well, seems like [I truly do]!”
Look at the original article too. And, for your convenience and in the spirit of dialogue and genuine wish to engage and grow, I offer a list of 10 follow-up thoughts that I posted on the comments on the original.
1) On race. The points argued from the article do not primarily center around race. Really, as this is about research, the aim is to imagine technologies that engage a wider range of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, plus more.
2) On personal preference. The video game examples discussed represent personal preference. The initial one is able to prefer Undead that seem to be more mysterious (such as “lich-like” or any other similar Undead types – the concept is actually a male analog to the female Undead which can look much more much like the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The first is also capable to feel that such options would break the video game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven with the game’s lore. The greater point is the fact issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it could be an easy task to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require being included in rules. Yet, in software they are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine the way to do better without allowing players to interrupt the overall game or slow things down?
3) In the bigger picture. This game examples I raise are, at some level, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, plus more. The concept is in the real world it comes with an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities tend to be over race and gender. Identities change over time, they change based upon context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine what it methods to have technologies that address these complaints and the way we can utilize them effectively. That includes making coherent gameworlds and never bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices might be more, or less, successful. But the point remains that this is a *hard* problem.
4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The study mentioned fails to focus primarily on external appearance. It focuses on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and more. As noted, these are internal issues. But we can go further. New computational approaches are possible which 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 provides for AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine and produce technologies that could do more – and 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 may also help to create fantastic games begin to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or even the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. You will find a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may know of this game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” as a good indie illustration of this.
6) On characters distinctive from one’s self. The article is not going to point out discomfort with playing characters like elves with pale skin, or suggest that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a part which is far from a true life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with 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 lots of other choices. I have done research on this issue to illustrate different ways that people associated with their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who want characters that are looking characters that happen to be 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 actually the nutshell version). However, no matter what, the sorts of characters in games are usually related to actual social values and categories. It could be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations again and again.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that use other characteristics including moral options to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is exactly the form of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not only tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Other people mentioned modding and suggested which not modding might be a mark of laziness. Yet, the aim this is actually building new systems that will 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 (including those commenting here) can certainly make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are merely early types of artistic outcomes or pilot work built sometimes using an underlying AI framework We have designed referred to as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but as it is easy to go much beyond current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The studies mentioned looks at not only games, but also at social media sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are some strong overlaps between them, inspite of the obvious differences. Taking a look at what each allows and does not allow can yield valuable insights.
9) On this guy, that guy, and also the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and making it possible for seamlessly dynamic characters is vital. Ideally, one outcome of this research would be methods to disallow “That Guy” (known as a selected type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the overall game. Having said that, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the difficulties accessible. So can a center on details rather than general potential of exploring new possibilities. The objective will not be to offer you every nuanced and finicky option, but rather to illustrate what some potential gaps could possibly be. Folks are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this must be done in an intelligent way that adds meaning and salience to the game. Examples much like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are very simply 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) Around the goal. The greatest goal is not a totalizing system that will handle any customization. Rather, it really is to understand that our identities in games, virtual worlds, social media 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 this all complexity, one option is to produce technologies to assist meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – by way of example as opposed to just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, along with the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use most of these to say something in regards to the world as well as the human condition.
Thank you all for considering these ideas, even those that disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, and they also could have been exacerbated, but and this is what productive dialogue is focused on.