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Earlier this week, we pointed you towards an interesting paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which managed the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in games online. Sadly, it appears to be many failed to get much from it.

No, judging through the comments within the post it seems many made a decision to read simply the headline in the piece (which, for an angle to entice readers into something a little bit heavier than we’re used to, might have been better-presented on our part), and never the suggestion to learn either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Inside the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the issue completely, 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 view a youtube video in the project in action here)

Gamers are beautiful, so consider this as being a love letter to you personally. I love the way you can circle the wagons once the medium we look after a lot is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal is to support your creativity in gaming as well as other digital media forms. In recent days, I needed the pleasure for 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 having been reblogged on Kotaku beneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Tough.” I am thrilled to see the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, however the title and article misstated my aims. Within this collection of my research (Furthermore, i invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and other expressive works), I am just considering 2 things:

1) New technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not just in games but also in social media, online accounts, and more.

2) By using these technologies to make 184px avatar and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.

The 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 very own works construct fantastic creatures that change according to emotional tone of user actions or dependant on other people’s perceptions rather than players’. My real efforts, then, can be far pulled from the purpose of creating an avatar that “well, appears like [I actually do]!”

Read the original article too. And, for your benefit and then in the spirit of dialogue and genuine want to engage and grow, I offer a listing of 10 follow-up thoughts that I posted towards the comments around the original.

1) On race. The points argued from the article will not primarily revolve around race. Really, because this is about research, the aim is to imagine technologies that engage a wider selection of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and much more.

2) On personal preference. The video game examples discussed represent personal preference. One is able to prefer Undead that seem to be more mysterious (like “lich-like” or any other similar Undead types – the thought is actually a male analog on the female Undead which may look far more much like the Corpse Bride) than just like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also permitted to feel that such options would break the overall 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 much more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it will be easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not need to be built in rules. Yet, in software they can be implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how you can do better without allowing players to get rid of this game or slow things down?

3) About the bigger picture. This game examples I raise are, to some extent, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and more. The thought is the fact that in real life there is an incredible quantity of nuance for representing identity. Identities tend to be more than race and gender. Identities change over time, they change based upon context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine what it really means to have technologies that address these issues and just how we are able to make use of them effectively. That also includes making coherent gameworlds instead of bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices may be more, or less, successful. Although the point remains that this is a *hard* problem.

4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The research mentioned fails 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 typically 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 could 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 may do more – and after that 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 help make fantastic games begin to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or perhaps the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. You will discover a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are aware of this game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” like a good indie instance of this.

6) On characters distinct from one’s self. This article fails to denote discomfort with playing characters like elves with pale skin, or propose that you should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that may be far away from a real life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters starting from elves to mecha pilots. It is a wonderful affordance of several games. But even more, it is actually great in order to play non-anthropomorphic characters and several other options. I have done research for this issue to clarify various ways that people relevant to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who wish characters who want 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 learn imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is actually the nutshell version). However, no matter what, the kinds of characters in games are usually related to real life 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 utilize other characteristics such as moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is exactly the type of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not merely tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Another person mentioned modding and suggested which not modding may be a mark of laziness. Yet, the goal is actually building new systems that will do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And this effort is proposed having a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (including those commenting here) could make them better still! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are simply early examples of artistic outcomes or pilot work built in some cases utilizing an underlying AI framework I actually have designed referred to as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a consequence of hubris, but because it is easy to go much beyond current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The investigation mentioned studies not simply games, but additionally at social media sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are many strong overlaps between the two, inspite of the obvious differences. Considering what each allows and will not allow can yield valuable insights.

9) On this guy, that guy, along with the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and making it possible for seamlessly dynamic characters is very important. Ideally, one results of this research could be strategies to disallow “That Guy” (known as a selected type of disruptive role-player) to ruin this game. In spite of this, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the issues on hand. So can a concentrate on details rather than general potential of exploring new possibilities. The aim is not to offer every nuanced and finicky option, but rather to illustrate what some potential gaps might be. Everyone is complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this should be carried out a sensible manner in which adds meaning and salience on the game. Examples much like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are actually in order to describe how there are lots of categories which can be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably greater than there are actually archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.

10) About the goal. The greatest goal is not a totalizing system that may handle any customization. Rather, it really is to realize that our identities in games, virtual worlds, social network sites, 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 this complexity, one option is to develop technologies to support meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for instance rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use every one of these to mention something concerning the world and also the human condition.

Many thanks all for considering these ideas, even people who disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, plus they could have been exacerbated, but this is just what productive dialogue is focused on.