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

No, judging with the comments inside the post it seems like many made a decision to read simply the headline in the piece (which, for an angle to entice readers into something a bit heavier than we’re used to, could have been better-presented on our part), rather than the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Inside the interests of presenting Harrell’s thoughts on the matter 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 a selection of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can watch a youtube video of the project actually in operation here)

Gamers are beautiful, so think of this being a love letter for you. I adore the way you can circle the wagons as soon as the medium we maintain 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 had the pleasure to be interviewed by Elisabeth Soep for boingboing.net on the subject of research into identity representation that we happen to be conducting. This article, “Chimerical Avatars as well as other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the distinction of obtaining 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 collection of my research (Furthermore, i invent new sorts of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, and also other expressive works), I am interested in two things:

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

2) Utilizing these technologies to help make Steam avatars and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.

Things 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 instead of the players’. My real efforts, then, are very far removed from the goal of creating an avatar that “well, appears to be [I truly do]!”

See the original article too. And, to save you time and also in the spirit of dialogue and genuine need to engage and grow, I offer a listing of 10 follow-up thoughts that I posted to the comments around the original.

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

2) On personal preference. The game examples discussed represent personal preference. The first is permitted to prefer Undead that appear more mysterious (like “lich-like” or another similar Undead types – the concept is really a male analog on the female Undead that may look far more like the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The first is also capable to assume that such options would break the game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven through the game’s lore. The larger point is the fact issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and a lot more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it could be easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require to become built in rules. Yet, in software these are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine the way to do better without allowing players to get rid of this game or slow things down?

3) On the bigger picture. The overall game examples I raise are, to some degree, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, plus more. The concept is the fact that in the real world it comes with an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities are much more than race and gender. Identities change with time, they change according to context. Scientific studies are forward looking – why not imagine what it means to have technologies that address these complaints and the way we are able to utilize them effectively. Which includes making coherent gameworlds instead of bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices could be more, or less, successful. Nevertheless the point remains that it is a *hard* problem.

4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The studies mentioned fails to focus primarily on external appearance. It focuses on issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, plus 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 groups of attributes or statistics. Categories can be modeled more fluidly, and new game mechanics may result. My GRIOT system permits AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine and create technologies that will do more – and then deploy them in the most efficient ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social network.

5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for may also 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. There exists a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may know of the video game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” like a good indie example of this.

6) On characters not the same as one’s self. The content is not going to indicate discomfort with playing characters for example elves with pale skin, or claim that you need to inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that is certainly far away from a real life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters which range from elves to mecha pilots. This is a wonderful affordance of many games. But even more, it is great in order to play non-anthropomorphic characters and many additional options. I have done research with this issue to illustrate alternative methods that people related to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who wish characters who want characters which are like themselves, other people are “character users” who see their identities as tools, among others still are “character players” who use their characters to explore imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is basically the nutshell version). However, irrespective of what, 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 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 just tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Somebody else mentioned modding and suggested which not modding can be a mark of laziness. Yet, the objective the following is actually building new systems that may do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And this effort is proposed by using a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (including those commenting here) could make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are only early examples of artistic outcomes or pilot work built in some instances utilizing an underlying AI framework I have designed known as the GRIOT system. This endeavor is known as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a consequence of hubris, but as it is possible to go much further than current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The study mentioned looks at not only games, but additionally at social network sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are some strong overlaps between the two, in spite of the obvious differences. Taking a look at what each allows and will not allow can yield valuable insights.

9) About this guy, that guy, and the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and enabling seamlessly dynamic characters is vital. Ideally, one result of this research would be approaches to disallow “That Guy” (referred to as a specific form of disruptive role-player) to ruin the overall game. Nevertheless, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the difficulties available. So can a give attention to details as opposed to the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The objective is not really to offer every nuanced and finicky option, but alternatively to illustrate what some potential gaps could possibly be. Folks are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this should be carried out a sensible way that adds meaning and salience to the game. Examples much like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are really in order to describe how there are many categories which are 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) Around the goal. The best goal is just not a totalizing system that may handle any customization. Rather, it can be to comprehend that the identities in games, virtual worlds, social network sites, and related media happens to 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 build up 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 on how to use every one of these to state something in regards to the world and the human condition.

Thanks a lot all for considering these ideas, even individuals who disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, and they seemed to be exacerbated, but this is just what productive dialogue is focused on.