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Earlier this week, we pointed you towards an interesting paper by Georgia Tech Professor Fox Harrell, which addressed the surprisingly complex politics of avatars and identity in online games. Sadly, it seems many did not get much from it.

No, judging through the comments inside the post it seems many chose to read simply the headline from the piece (which, as being an angle to entice readers into something a bit heavier than we’re used to, could have been better-presented on our part), and never the suggestion to read either a fuller piece or Harrell’s whole paper elsewhere. Within the interests of presenting Harrell’s ideas on the matter 100 %, 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 variety of possible avatar transformations (right) (you can watch a youtube video of your project actually in operation here)

Gamers are beautiful, so consider this being a love letter to you. I adore how you can circle the wagons if the medium we maintain a 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 topic of research into identity representation that I happen to be conducting. This short article, “Chimerical Avatars along with other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell,” also had the difference of having been reblogged on Kotaku within the sensationalistic headline “Making Avatars That Aren’t White Dudes Is Hard.” I am just thrilled to discover the dialogue started by my fellow denizens of gamerdom, however the title and article misstated my aims. With this type of my research (I also invent new forms of AI-based interactive narrative, gaming, poetry, as well as other expressive works), I am just considering 2 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 make avatars for steam and related gaming systems more artistically expressive.

The 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 certainly not exclusively). My own, personal works construct fantastic creatures that change according to emotional tone of user actions or in relation to other people’s perceptions rather than the players’. My real efforts, then, are quite far pulled from the aim of creating an avatar that “well, appears to be [I do]!”

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

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

2) On personal preference. The overall game examples discussed represent personal preference. The initial one is capable to prefer Undead that appear to be more mysterious (for example “lich-like” or other similar Undead types – the idea is really a male analog on the female Undead which could look a lot more just like the Corpse Bride) than such as a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also able to assume that such options would break the game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic driven through the game’s lore. The greater point is the fact that issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, plus more, are meaningful dimensions. In real life or tabletop role-playing it would be very easy to simply imagine these attributes – they do not require to get included 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 interrupt this game or slow things down?

3) Around the bigger picture. This game examples I raise are, to some extent, 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 tend to be over race and gender. Identities change after a while, they change based on context. Research is forward looking – why not imagine what it really ways to have technologies that address these issues and how we could make use of them effectively. That features making coherent gameworlds rather than bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices might be more, or less, successful. Nevertheless the point remains that this is a *hard* problem.

4) On back-end data structures and algorithms. The research mentioned does not 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 could go further. New computational approaches are possible which do not reify social identity categories as discrete sets of attributes or statistics. Categories might 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 produce technologies that can do more – after which deploy them in the most effective ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social media.

5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for may also help to produce 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. There is a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may are aware of this game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” as being a good indie instance of this.

6) On characters distinct from one’s self. This article will not point to discomfort with playing characters such as elves with pale skin, or advise that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that is certainly not even close to a real life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters which range from elves to mecha pilots. This can be a wonderful affordance of countless games. But even more, it can be great to be able to play non-anthropomorphic characters and many additional options. We have done research about this issue to clarify various ways that folks related to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who wish characters that want characters that 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 learn imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is the nutshell version). However, regardless of what, the sorts of characters in games tend to be relevant to real world social values and categories. It could be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations again and again.

7) On alternative models. Someone mentioned text-based systems and systems designed to use other characteristics for example moral choices to determine characters (c.f., Ultima IV). That is exactly the sort of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation – not only tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles. Somebody else mentioned modding and suggested that not modding might be a mark of laziness. Yet, the aim here 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 (such as those commenting here) could make them better still! Works like “Loss, Undersea” and “DefineMe: Chimera” are just early types of artistic outcomes or pilot work built in some cases employing an underlying AI framework We have designed called the GRIOT system. This endeavor is referred to as the Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project (“advanced” not as a result of hubris, but because it is easy to go much beyond current systems allow).

8) On platforms. The research mentioned studies not simply games, and also at social networks, online accounts, and avatars. There are several strong overlaps between them, in spite of the obvious differences. Considering what each allows and will not allow can yield valuable insights.

9) For this guy, that guy, and the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and enabling seamlessly dynamic characters is vital. Ideally, one upshot of this research will be strategies to disallow “That Guy” (known as a selected type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the game. Having said that, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the issues on hand. So can a center on details as opposed to the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The aim will not be to provide every nuanced and finicky option, but rather to illustrate what some potential gaps might be. Folks are complicated, any elegant technical solution that enriches role-playing in games seems desirable. But this should be done in an intelligent way in which adds meaning and salience towards the game. Examples much like the ranger and mesmer classes in GuildWars: Nightfall are really just to describe how there are many categories that are transient, in-between, marginal, blended, and dynamic. Probably a lot more than there are actually archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.

10) On the goal. The best goal is not a totalizing system that can handle any customization. Rather, it really is to realize that 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). Inside the face of this all complexity, one choice is to formulate technologies to assist meaningful and context-specific identity technologies – for example rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and the tinting of elves, let’s think on how to use all of these to say something regarding the world and also the human condition.

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