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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 online games. Sadly, it appears to be many failed to get much out of it.

No, judging with the comments within the post it appears to be many decided to read simply the headline in the piece (which, as being an angle to entice readers into something a little heavier than we’re comfortable with, might have been better-presented on our part), rather than the suggestion to learn either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Inside the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the matter 100 %, then, he’s been so kind regarding 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 view a video of the project in action here)

Gamers are beautiful, so think of this being a love letter to you. I like the way you can circle the wagons as soon as the medium we care for a lot is assailed. So, without a doubt directly: my goal is 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 i happen to be conducting. This post, “Chimerical Avatars along with other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the distinction of having been reblogged on Kotaku underneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Hard.” 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 particular type of my research (I also invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, along with other expressive works), I am just interested in 2 things:

1) Technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games but also in social network, online accounts, and much more.

2) Utilizing these new technologies to create avatars for steam and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.

What I have called “Avatar Art,” can 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 definitely not exclusively). My own, personal works construct fantastic creatures that change depending on emotional tone of user actions or based upon other people’s perceptions as opposed to the players’. My real efforts, then, are very far taken from the objective of creating an avatar that “well, appears like [I really do]!”

See the original article too. And, for your convenience as well as in the spirit of dialogue and genuine need to engage and grow, I offer a listing of 10 follow-up thoughts i posted towards the comments on the original.

1) On race. The points argued in the article tend not to 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. This game examples discussed represent personal preference. The initial one is able to prefer Undead that seem to be more mysterious (for example “lich-like” or other similar Undead types – the theory can be a male analog to the female Undead which can look much more just like the Corpse Bride) than similar to a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The initial one is also permitted to feel 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 that issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and much more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it might be very easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require to become that are part of rules. Yet, in software these are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to break the video 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, plus more. The theory is that in real life it comes with an incredible quantity of nuance for representing identity. Identities are generally more than race and gender. Identities change after a while, they change based upon context. Scientific studies are forward looking – why not imagine what it really methods to have technologies that address these complaints and how we can make use of them effectively. Which includes making coherent gameworlds and never bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices can be more, or less, successful. But 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 much more. As noted, these are internal issues. But we can easily 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 create technologies that can do more – and after that deploy them in the most beneficial ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social media.

5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for may also help to make 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. You will discover a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are conscious of this game “Shock: Social Sci-fi” like a good indie demonstration of this.

6) On characters different from one’s self. The content does not denote discomfort with playing characters like elves with pale skin, or advise that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that is certainly far away from a genuine life conception of identity. Rather, it begins having the ability to happily play characters which range from elves to mecha pilots. It is a wonderful affordance of numerous games. But more, it can be great so that you can play non-anthropomorphic characters and several additional options. I have done research with this issue to clarify different methods that men and women linked to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who desire characters that want characters which can be like themselves, others are “character users” who see their identities as tools, yet 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, whatever, the kinds of characters in games are usually associated with real-world social values and categories. It can be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations time and time again.

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 exactly the kind of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not merely tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Somebody else mentioned modding and suggested that not modding can be a mark of laziness. Yet, the target this is actually building new systems that could 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 (like those commenting here) could make them better still! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are merely early types of artistic outcomes or pilot work built occasionally having an underlying AI framework I have got designed referred to as GRIOT system. This endeavor is known as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but because it is possible to go much beyond current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The investigation mentioned examines not simply games, and also at social networking sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are several strong overlaps between them, regardless of the obvious differences. Taking a look at what each allows and fails to allow can yield valuable insights.

9) With this guy, that guy, along with the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and permitting seamlessly dynamic characters is essential. Ideally, one upshot of this research would be ways to disallow “That Guy” (referred to as a specific kind of disruptive role-player) to ruin the game. Nevertheless, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the issues at hand. So can a give attention to details instead of the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The aim will not be to offer you 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 should be done in a sensible way that adds meaning and salience towards the game. Examples such as the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are actually only to describe how there are many categories that happen to be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably greater than you can find archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.

10) In the goal. The greatest goal will not be a totalizing system that could handle any customization. Rather, it can be to comprehend our identities in games, virtual worlds, social networks, 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 all this complexity, one choice is to build up technologies to aid meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for example as opposed to just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, along with the tinting of elves, let’s think on how to use every one of these to mention something in regards to the world along with the human condition.

Thanks all for considering these ideas, even people who disagree. Your concerns might have been clarified, and they could have been exacerbated, but this is what productive dialogue is focused on.