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

No, judging through the comments within the post it seems many chose to read simply the headline of your piece (which, as an angle to entice readers into something a little heavier than we’re used to, might have been better-presented on our part), and never the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. In the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas on the issue entirely, 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 enjoy a youtube video in the project actually in operation here)

Gamers are beautiful, so consider this as being a love letter for you. I love how you can circle the wagons as soon as the medium we look after a whole lot is assailed. So, let me tell you directly: my goal is usually 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 i have been conducting. This informative article, “Chimerical Avatars as well as other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of obtaining been reblogged on Kotaku underneath the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Hard.” I am thrilled to discover the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, nevertheless the title and article misstated my aims. In this collection of my research (I also invent new kinds of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, as well as other expressive works), I am just thinking about 2 things:

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

2) By using these technologies to produce avatars for steam and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.

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 works construct fantastic creatures that change depending on emotional tone of user actions or dependant on other people’s perceptions rather than players’. My real efforts, then, are quite far taken from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, appears like [I really do]!”

Browse the original article too. And, for your benefit and in the spirit of dialogue and genuine wish to engage and grow, I offer a list of 10 follow-up thoughts that I posted for the comments around the original.

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

2) On personal preference. This game examples discussed represent personal preference. The initial one is allowed to prefer Undead that look more mysterious (such as “lich-like” or another similar Undead types – the idea is a male analog for the female Undead that may look a lot more such as the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. The initial one is also allowed to assume 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 the real world or tabletop role-playing it could be simple to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require to become included in rules. Yet, in software they may be implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to interrupt the video game or slow things down?

3) Around the bigger picture. The video game examples I raise are, at some level, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and a lot more. The thought is in real life it comes with an incredible quantity of nuance for representing identity. Identities tend to be more than race and gender. Identities change as time passes, they change based upon context. Scientific studies are forward looking – why not imagine exactly what it methods to have technologies that address these problems and the way we can rely on them effectively. Which includes making coherent gameworlds rather than bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices can be more, or less, successful. Although the point remains that this can be a *hard* problem.

4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The research mentioned does not focus primarily on external appearance. It targets issues like emotional tone, transformation, change, community perspectives, stigma, and much more. As noted, these are typically internal issues. But we can go further. New computational approaches are possible which do not reify social identity categories as discrete sets of attributes or statistics. Categories can 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 – and then deploy them in the most beneficial ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social networking.

5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for also may help to produce fantastic games set out 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 conscious of the video game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” as being a good indie instance of this.

6) On characters different from one’s self. The article does not denote discomfort with playing characters for example elves with pale skin, or claim that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that may be far away from a true life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters ranging from elves to mecha pilots. This can be a wonderful affordance of many games. But a lot more, it is actually great so as to play non-anthropomorphic characters and a lot of other available choices. I have done research with this issue to explain different ways that men and women associated with their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who wish characters that are looking 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 learn imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (here is the nutshell version). However, regardless of what, the sorts of characters in games tend to be relevant to actual social values and categories. It may be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations repeatedly.

7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems which use other characteristics like moral options to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is the form of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not merely tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Someone else mentioned modding and suggested which not modding could be a mark of laziness. Yet, the goal this is actually building new systems that can do better! Certainly less lazy than adapting existing systems. And also this effort is proposed having a humble, inviting attitude. When new systems fail, the input of others (such as those commenting here) could make them even better! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are just early instances of artistic outcomes or pilot work built in some instances employing an underlying AI framework I have designed called the GRIOT system. This endeavor is called the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but as it is possible to go much further than current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The investigation mentioned studies not only games, and also at social media sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are many strong overlaps between them, in spite of the obvious differences. Considering what each allows and fails to allow can yield valuable insights.

9) On this guy, that guy, and also the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and making it possible for seamlessly dynamic characters is important. Ideally, one result of this research will be methods to disallow “That Guy” (known as a certain type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the overall game. Nevertheless, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the problems available. So can a center on details instead of the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The aim will not be to provide every nuanced and finicky option, but to illustrate what some potential gaps could be. Everyone is complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this must be carried out in a wise way in which adds meaning and salience towards the game. Examples such as the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are really just to describe how there are many categories which are transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably over you can find archetypical categories. Let’s think concerning how to enable these categories in software.

10) In the goal. The ultimate goal is just not a totalizing system that will handle any customization. Rather, it can be to appreciate which 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). Inside the face of all this complexity, one choice is to develop technologies to aid meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for instance as opposed to just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, as well as the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use most of these to mention something about the world along with the human condition.

Thanks all for considering these ideas, even those that disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, and they also could have been exacerbated, but this is exactly what productive dialogue is centered on.