Earlier in the week, we pointed you towards a fascinating paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which managed the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games. Sadly, it seems many failed to get much out of it.

No, judging through the comments within the post it seems like many chose to read simply the headline from the piece (which, as an angle to entice readers into something a bit heavier than we’re used to, could have been better-presented on our part), and not the suggestion to learn either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. From the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the challenge 100 %, then, he’s been so kind concerning 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 relevant video of the project actually in operation here)

Gamers are beautiful, so think of this being a love letter to you personally. I love the way you can circle the wagons if the medium we maintain a whole lot is assailed. So, let me tell you 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 subject of research into identity representation that I have been conducting. This short article, “Chimerical Avatars along with other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the distinction of getting been reblogged on Kotaku beneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Difficult.” I am thrilled to find out the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, however the title and article misstated my aims. In this line of my research (I also invent new forms of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and other expressive works), I am thinking about a couple of things:

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

2) Using these technologies to help make best steam avatars and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.

The 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 upon emotional tone of user actions or dependant on other people’s perceptions rather than players’. My real efforts, then, are quite far pulled from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, appears to be [I do]!”

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

1) On race. The points argued within the article usually do not primarily revolve around race. Really, since this is about research, the target would be to imagine technologies that engage a wider selection of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.

2) On personal preference. This game examples discussed represent personal preference. One is able to prefer Undead that look more mysterious (including “lich-like” or any other similar Undead types – the thought is a male analog on the female Undead which may look a lot more just like the Corpse Bride) than similar to a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also capable to feel that such options would break this game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven by 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 would be very easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not need to become built in rules. Yet, in software they are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine the best way to do better without allowing players to break the game or slow things down?

3) On the bigger picture. This game examples I raise are, at some level, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and more. The idea is that in real life there is an incredible volume of nuance for representing identity. Identities are much greater than race and gender. Identities change as time passes, they change based on context. Scientific studies are forward looking – why not imagine what it really ways to have technologies that address these problems and just how we are able to use them effectively. That features making coherent gameworlds and not 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 investigation mentioned will not focus primarily on external appearance. It concentrates on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and more. As noted, these are generally internal issues. But we could go further. New computational approaches are possible that do not reify social identity categories as discrete sets of attributes or statistics. Categories may 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 could do more – after which 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 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 recognize the overall game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” being a good indie illustration of this.

6) On characters distinct from one’s self. The article fails to point to discomfort with playing characters including elves with pale skin, or suggest that you ought to inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that is certainly faraway from an actual life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters ranging from elves to mecha pilots. This really is a wonderful affordance of countless games. But a lot more, it can be great so as to play non-anthropomorphic characters and lots of other options. I actually have done research with this issue to explain alternative methods that men and women associated with their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who wish characters who want characters which can be 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 explore imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is the nutshell version). However, no matter what, the types of characters in games are usually related to actual social values and categories. It might be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations repeatedly.

7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that utilize other characteristics including moral options 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. Another person mentioned modding and suggested that not modding can be a mark of laziness. Yet, the goal the following is actually building new systems that can do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And that effort is proposed using a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (such as those commenting here) can certainly make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are just 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 known as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not because of hubris, but because it is possible to go much further than current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The study mentioned studies not simply games, but also at social networks, online accounts, and avatars. There are many strong overlaps between them, in spite of the obvious differences. Checking out what each allows and is not going to allow can yield valuable insights.

9) On this guy, that guy, as well as the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and allowing for seamlessly dynamic characters is very important. Ideally, one result of this research can be ways to disallow “That Guy” (known as a certain type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the overall 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 aim will not be to offer every nuanced and finicky option, but instead to illustrate what some potential gaps could be. Individuals are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this must be completed in a smart method that adds meaning and salience towards the game. Examples just like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are very just to describe how there are numerous categories which can 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) On the goal. The greatest goal will not be a totalizing system that could handle any customization. Rather, it really is to comprehend our identities in games, virtual worlds, social networks, 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 all of this complexity, one option is to develop technologies to aid meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for example rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, as well as the tinting of elves, let’s think concerning how to use many of these to mention 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 may have been exacerbated, but and this is what productive dialogue is centered on.

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