Earlier this week, we pointed you towards an intriguing paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which addressed the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in online games. Sadly, it appears to be many did not get much out of it.
No, judging by the comments inside the post it seems many chose to read simply the headline from the piece (which, being an angle to entice readers into something a little heavier than we’re accustomed to, could have been better-presented on our part), rather than the suggestion to see either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. From the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the challenge in full, then, he’s been so kind as to present this post.
Top: A screenshot from Harrell’s interactive game/poem “Loss, Undersea” (left), and a range of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can see a video from the project in action here)
Gamers are beautiful, so think of this as being a love letter for your needs. I really like how you can circle the wagons if the medium we take care of a lot 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 had the pleasure to be interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the topic of research into identity representation i are already conducting. This short article, “Chimerical Avatars and also other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of experiencing been reblogged on Kotaku underneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Tough.” I am thrilled to find out the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, even so the title and article misstated my aims. In this collection of my research (Also i invent new types of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and also other expressive works), I am thinking about 2 things:
1) New technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not just in games however in social network sites, online accounts, and more.
2) Using these technologies to create Steam avatars and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.
The Things I have called “Avatar Art,” can certainly 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 works construct fantastic creatures that change based upon emotional tone of user actions or in relation to other people’s perceptions instead of the players’. My real efforts, then, are usually far pulled from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, looks like [I actually do]!”
Look at the original article too. And, for your benefit as well as in the spirit of dialogue and genuine want 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 within the article usually do not primarily center around race. Really, as this is about research, the goal is to imagine technologies that engage a wider variety of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.
2) On personal preference. The game examples discussed represent personal preference. One is able to prefer Undead that appear more mysterious (such as “lich-like” or some other similar Undead types – the idea can be a male analog for the female Undead that may look a lot more such as the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The first is also capable to feel that such options would break the game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven by the game’s lore. The larger point is that issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it would be very easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require being built into rules. Yet, in software they can be implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to interrupt the game or slow things down?
3) On the bigger picture. The overall game examples I raise are, at some level, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and more. The idea is the fact that in the real world there is an incredible volume of nuance for representing identity. Identities are much greater than race and gender. Identities change over time, they change according to context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine just what it ways to have technologies that address these issues and how we are able to use them effectively. Which includes making coherent gameworlds and never bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices might be more, or less, successful. Although the point remains that this can be a *hard* problem.
4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The research mentioned is not going to focus primarily on external appearance. It focuses on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and more. As noted, these are generally 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 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 can do more – after which deploy them in the most beneficial ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social network sites.
5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for also may 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. There exists a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may know of the game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” as a good indie demonstration of this.
6) On characters not the same as one’s self. This article does not point to discomfort with playing characters like elves with pale skin, or claim that you need to inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that is certainly not even close to a true life conception of identity. Rather, it begins having the ability to happily play characters ranging from elves to mecha pilots. It is a wonderful affordance of numerous games. But a lot more, it is great so that you can play non-anthropomorphic characters and several additional options. We have done research about this issue to explain different methods that folks relevant to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who would like characters who want characters which are 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, whatever, the kinds of characters in games are usually related to actual social values and categories. It can be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations repeatedly.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems which use other characteristics such as moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the type of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not simply tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Someone else mentioned modding and suggested that does not modding may be a mark of laziness. Yet, the objective this is actually building new systems that may do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And this effort is proposed with a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (such as those commenting here) will make them better still! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are merely early samples of artistic outcomes or pilot work built sometimes having an underlying AI framework I have designed referred to as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is known as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but since it is possible to go much beyond current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The research mentioned looks at not just games, but in addition at social networks, online accounts, and avatars. There are a few strong overlaps between them, despite the obvious differences. Looking at what each allows and will not allow can yield valuable insights.
9) On this guy, that guy, as well as the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and enabling seamlessly dynamic characters is vital. Ideally, one upshot of this research would be ways to disallow “That Guy” (described as a certain kind of disruptive role-player) to ruin the overall game. Having said that, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the difficulties accessible. So can a concentrate on details instead of the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The goal is not to supply every nuanced and finicky option, but rather to illustrate what some potential gaps could possibly be. People are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this has to be done in a wise way that adds meaning and salience for the game. Examples like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are really only to describe how there are lots of categories which are transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably more than you will find archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.
10) About the goal. The best goal is not really a totalizing system that could handle any customization. Rather, it is to appreciate our identities in games, virtual worlds, social network 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 this complexity, one option is to produce technologies to assist meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for instance as opposed to just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and also the tinting of elves, let’s think concerning how to use most of these to mention something concerning the world and also the human condition.
Thanks all for considering these ideas, even people who disagree. Your concerns seemed to be clarified, plus they seemed to be exacerbated, but this is what productive dialogue is about.