Posted on May 19, 2017
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Earlier this 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. Sadly, it appears many did not get much out of it.
No, judging by the comments inside the post it appears many decided to read simply the headline from the piece (which, being an angle to entice readers into something a little heavier than we’re familiar with, might have been better-presented on our part), and not the suggestion to learn either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Inside the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas 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 watch a relevant video of your project actually in operation here)
Gamers are beautiful, so think of this as being a love letter to you personally. I really like how we can circle the wagons once the medium we take care of a great deal is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal is always to support your creativity in gaming along with other digital media forms. In recent days, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the subject of research into identity representation i have already been conducting. This informative article, “Chimerical Avatars and also other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of having been reblogged on Kotaku beneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Tough.” I am just thrilled to discover the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, however the title and article misstated my aims. Within this line of my research (I also invent new forms of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and other expressive works), I am interested in 2 things:
1) Technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not just in games but also in social networking, online accounts, and more.
2) By using these 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 most certainly not exclusively). My own, personal works construct fantastic creatures that change based on emotional tone of user actions or based upon other people’s perceptions as opposed to the players’. My real efforts, then, are quite far removed from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, appears like [I really do]!”
Read the original article too. And, for your benefit and also in the spirit of dialogue and genuine want to engage and grow, I offer a summary of 10 follow-up thoughts that I posted for the comments about the original.
1) On race. The points argued in the article will not primarily center around race. Really, since this is about research, the objective is always to imagine technologies that engage a wider range of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and a lot more.
2) On personal preference. The overall game examples discussed represent personal preference. The initial one is permitted to prefer Undead that appear to be more mysterious (including “lich-like” or other similar Undead types – the concept is actually a male analog to the female Undead which may look considerably more such as the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The first is also capable to think that such options would break the overall 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, plus more, are meaningful dimensions. In real life or tabletop role-playing it might be easy 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 the best way to do better without allowing players to get rid of the overall game or slow things down?
3) Around the bigger picture. The game examples I raise are, to some extent, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and more. The theory is the fact that in the real world there is an incredible level of nuance for representing identity. Identities are generally a lot more than race and gender. Identities change after a while, they change depending on context. Scientific studies are forward looking – why not imagine just what it means to have technologies that address these problems and exactly how we can rely on them effectively. That also includes making coherent gameworlds and never bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices might 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 is not going to focus primarily on external appearance. It targets issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, plus more. As noted, these are internal issues. But we are able to 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 enables AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine and create technologies that can do more – after which deploy them in the most efficient ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social network sites.
5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for also may help to produce fantastic games set out to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or maybe the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. You will find a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are conscious of the overall game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” being a good indie example of this.
6) On characters not the same as one’s self. The article fails to indicate discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or propose that you ought to inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role which is not even close to an actual life conception of identity. Rather, it begins having the ability to happily play characters ranging from elves to mecha pilots. This is a wonderful affordance of several games. But much more, it is great so as to play non-anthropomorphic characters and many additional options. I actually have done research for this issue to clarify various ways that folks associated with their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who want characters that are looking 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 (here is the nutshell version). However, no matter what, the kinds of characters in games are often related to real world social values and categories. It could be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations repeatedly.
7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems designed to use other characteristics like moral options to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the kind of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not only tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Someone else mentioned modding and suggested which not modding may be a mark of laziness. Yet, the aim the following is actually building new systems that could do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. Which effort is proposed with a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (like those commenting here) can certainly make them better still! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are simply early samples of artistic outcomes or pilot work built sometimes using an underlying AI framework I have designed referred to as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not due to hubris, but because it is easy to go much beyond current systems allow).
8) On platforms. The study mentioned examines not only games, but also at social media sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are many strong overlaps between the two, regardless of the obvious differences. Looking at what each allows and does not allow can yield valuable insights.
9) On this guy, that guy, as well as the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and permitting seamlessly dynamic characters is essential. Ideally, one results of this research can be approaches to disallow “That Guy” (identified as a selected type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the game. Having said that, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the difficulties at hand. So can a concentrate on details rather than general potential of exploring new possibilities. The target is not really to offer every nuanced and finicky option, but alternatively to illustrate what some potential gaps might be. Individuals are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this needs to be completed in an intelligent way that adds meaning and salience to the game. Examples just like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are very simply to describe how there are numerous categories which can 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) On the goal. The supreme goal is just not a totalizing system that may handle any customization. Rather, it can be to realize our identities in games, virtual worlds, social networking sites, and related media take place 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 all complexity, one choice is to formulate technologies to support 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 many of these to mention something in regards to the world along with the human condition.
Thank you all for considering these ideas, even those that disagree. Your concerns might have been clarified, plus they may have been exacerbated, but and this is what productive dialogue is all about.