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

No, judging with the comments in the post it seems like many chosen to read simply the headline of the piece (which, as being an angle to entice readers into something a little bit heavier than we’re comfortable with, could have been better-presented on our part), instead of the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. In the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the challenge entirely, then, he’s been so kind with regards 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 enjoy a video from the project in action here)

Gamers are beautiful, so think of this like a love letter for your needs. I love how you can circle the wagons as soon as the medium we maintain 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 needed the pleasure being interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the topic of research into identity representation that I have already been conducting. This article, “Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of having been reblogged on Kotaku under the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Challenging.” I am just thrilled to discover the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, nevertheless the title and article misstated my aims. In this particular collection of my research (Also i invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and also other expressive works), I am interested in 2 things:

1) New technologies for creating empowering identity representations, not only in games however in social network sites, online accounts, and more.

2) Using these technologies to create 184px avatar 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 definitely not exclusively). My own works construct fantastic creatures that change depending on emotional tone of user actions or dependant on other people’s perceptions as opposed to the players’. My real efforts, then, can be far taken off the aim of creating an avatar that “well, looks like [I actually do]!”

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

1) On race. The points argued from the article tend not to primarily revolve around race. Really, because this is about research, the target is always to imagine technologies that engage a wider array of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, plus more.

2) On personal preference. The video game examples discussed represent personal preference. The first is permitted to prefer Undead that seem to be more mysterious (like “lich-like” or some other similar Undead types – the concept is a male analog to the female Undead that may look much more just like the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also capable to think that such options would break this game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven through the game’s lore. The larger point is issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and more, are meaningful dimensions. In real life or tabletop role-playing it might be an easy task to simply imagine these attributes – they do not need to get that are part of rules. Yet, in software they are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to interrupt the overall game or slow things down?

3) About the bigger picture. The game examples I raise are, to some extent, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and more. The thought is in real life it comes with an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities tend to be over race and gender. Identities change after a while, they change based upon context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine exactly what it ways to have technologies that address these issues and just how we can 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. But the point remains that it is a *hard* problem.

4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The research mentioned is not going to focus primarily on external appearance. It targets issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and more. As noted, they are internal issues. But we could 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 enables AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine and make technologies that could do more – after which deploy them in the most effective ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social network sites.

5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for may also help to produce fantastic games commence to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, and even the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. You will discover a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are aware of the overall game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” as being a good indie instance of this.

6) On characters distinctive from one’s self. This content fails to denote discomfort with playing characters such as elves with pale skin, or claim that you should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a part that may be far from a genuine 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 really is great in order to play non-anthropomorphic characters and several other choices. We have done research with this issue to describe different ways that folks related to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who desire characters that are looking characters which are like themselves, others 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 the nutshell version). However, no matter what, the sorts of characters in games are often associated with real-world social values and categories. It might be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations again and again.

7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems that utilize other characteristics like moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is exactly the kind of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not simply tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Another person mentioned modding and suggested which not modding may be a mark of laziness. Yet, the target this is actually building new systems that may do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And also this effort is proposed with 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 just early instances of artistic outcomes or pilot work built occasionally using an underlying AI framework I actually have designed referred to as GRIOT system. This endeavor is called the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but since it is possible to go much further than current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The research mentioned looks at not merely games, but also at social networks, online accounts, and avatars. There are a few strong overlaps between them, in spite of the obvious differences. Taking a look at what each allows and is not going to allow can yield valuable insights.

9) With this guy, that guy, as well as the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and enabling seamlessly dynamic characters is very important. Ideally, one outcome of this research will be strategies to disallow “That Guy” (identified as a selected type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the video game. In spite of this, 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 target is not to supply every nuanced and finicky option, but instead to illustrate what some potential gaps might be. People are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this has to be carried out a sensible way that adds meaning and salience towards the game. Examples such as the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are really only to describe how there are many categories that happen to be transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably a lot more than there are actually archetypical categories. Let’s think concerning how to enable these categories in software.

10) Around the goal. The best goal is not a totalizing system that could handle any customization. Rather, it is to understand that the identities in games, virtual worlds, social media 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). Within the face of all this complexity, one choice is to build up technologies to back up meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – by way of example as opposed to just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and also the tinting of elves, let’s think on how to use all of these to state something about the world and the human condition.

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

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