Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell

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58 Responses to “Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell”

  1. Daedalus says:

    I think Felix has a pretty good point: in fantasy and sci-fi especially, a character’s physical appearance is always secondary to their archetype and their metaphor. If you’re focusing on the skin color you are quite literally being too superficial about it. If you look behind aesthetics, at the content of the character (so to speak), you find that just because I don’t have fangs and green skin doesn’t mean I can’t empathize with an orc from WoW. The professor does the classic fallacy of confusing PLAYER with CHARACTER. The two are related, but are rarely the same thing (I can’t cast magic or sword fight worth a damn, but every fantasy character I’ve played can do at least one of those things to a…well…FANTASTIC degree).

    But I think also that our good professor has a point to make about a person finding the right self-avatar. This is a key concept in videogaming, that our psychopomps needs to be a reflection of how we see ourselves. These issues should be raised. Because archetype is difficult to disentangle from our long history of cultural discrimination (Greedy dwarves are anti-semitic! Orcs discriminate against Mongolians! PETA is irked at grinding on bunnies and wildlife!), it does inevitably raise these issues. Though I think W.E.B. DuBois presented the concept of “Dual Consciousness” beautifully, I also think the mythic archetype of the shapeshifting shaman does it at least as regally. These concepts involve, but ultimately transcend, the petty modern cultural concerns of skin tone. For us to limit our conversation to race I feel slightly misses the forest for the trees.

    It’s key to invent new myths and new archetypes and new cultural modes, but if you think the purpose of a WoW character is to represent what you want to look like, you don’t understand the beast you are fighting.

  2. theLadyfingers says:

    Hey now, you don’t get to be beautiful, strong and intelligent.

  3. greengestalt says:

    Well, it’s “Come a long way, baby” but more focusing on anticipated complaints of women going “Leather thong or Chain mail bikini? Hair either wild or a Mohawk? Breasts from melon to head size? And look at how this heroine holds a huge sword, it’s like she has a —-”…

    I’m joking, but I think the focus was indeed on stopping the “Sexist” issue first.

    Also, note that “heroic fantasy” is while not openly racist pretty “Old School” in ideas. Conan’s world, for instance, was heavily inspired by the “Ultima Thule” tales (Nazi Atlantis, basically) where the survivors of Atlantis went north to “Purify” themselves so they could then come down south and rule again.

    And it’s full of old school stereotypes of races and cultures, again from an age (early 20th century) that is “Undreamed of Politically Incorrect” by today’s standards. Black people are very strong and dumb, but also brave, loyal, social and naturally “Tribal” in a “Noble Savage” way. Orientals are sinister, except the women who are hawt sex toys but also potentially sinister. “Native Peoples” are hideous devil worshiping cannibals except the ones the main character befriends, who become lighter skinned “negro” friends. Arabs are all sinister rat like and wicked, such as the rug merchant, the evil vizer, the “Mad Arab Sorceror”… though they do have their “Noble Savages” the “Fanatic Warriors”…Oh, and their women are covered and hidden because when they disrobe to the hero they are always hot and dress like semi naked belly dancers under their outside clothing. Let’s not forget “White People”. They tend to be the most intelligent and overall “Superior”. But they have to prove it and run around raiding the other peoples (including other white people) stabbing the men and raping the women and running off with treasure.

    It’s all good, old “Politically Incorrect” fun and there’s been enough time passed since this stuff was current so it’s not actually harmful.

    My fav was in “Red Nails” when a character (Native Central American in appearance and naming) was raving to the ‘gods of blood’ in praise after they’d narrowly survived a battle. Conan turned to Valaria and said “Surely his race did not build this great city…” That was a popular current theory, that the great temples of the Aztecs and Mayans weren’t built by them but were leftovers from some Antediluvian time (Atlantis, most likely) or built by space aliens.

    -On that note, the Aztecs called themselves the “Mexicanan” and said they’d originally come from a place called “At-Atlan”… This was to the conquistadors and missionaries who’d never likely heard of “Atlantis”.

    But, no, I agree with the author, we should include more freedom in character design. In the past it was severely limited by technology (computer power and memory) and recently it’s been limited by economy and lack of anticipation. But things are getting better in that regard.

    The real barrier, IMO, is some big companies fear of “Total freedom” of users. Like all the “Sporn”;-) If you could totally re-make a fantasy RPG character, sure some would make interesting unique characters, but others might just upload “Nude Raider” or make big p-nesis… And for online play that might lose some of it’s feel.

  4. SKR says:

    I’ve never understood some people’s obsession with the minute details of their avatar. Just play the game. If the game-play is good, “Who cares?” Maybe that is just my old prejudices coming from a time when everything was either text or hand drawn.

  5. cait says:

    Turns out that it’s tough to create nuanced characters in a coherent narrative. In other words, it’s hard to be a sophisticated teller-of-tales, digital or otherwise, interactive or otherwise.

    And simple stories that describe worlds with easily-detectable patterns (hello, Harlequin Romance) will (always?) be soothing for many people and disturbing for many fewer people.

  6. christopher says:

    as a sidenote: that is a very handsome man. with an impressive cv. and interesting ideas. i’m smitten.

  7. Antinous / Moderator says:

    This guy seems like That Guy.

    He who smelt it, dealt it.

    • Anony Mouse says:

      The one who said the rhyme, did the crime!

      I agree with you, Beezlebuddy is being a tool. ‘That guyism’ is an issue in RPG, but it’s unfair to write off the legitimate criticism of racial stereotyping in games as some kind of effete posturing, as he does. it is a concern. I love the Elder Scrolls games, but I think that the ‘Redguard issue’ is deeply disturbing. I think that the stereotyped advantages and disadvantages of female characters are stupid and annoying, and reinforce negative sterotypes and unpleasant values about gender. I hate the way in which aliens are proxies for human races and cultures in all mainstream films and TV series.

      That said, I don’t think that, as you seem to imply, that Beezlebuddy is guilty of the same ‘That guyism’ that he is talking about, which your comment seems to imply. I think he’s just being rather crass.

    • Beelzebuddy says:

      He who denied it, supplied it.

      That Guy aside, though, the use of game avatars as insight into race relations does hold a good deal of promise, in that it promotes discussion without directly offending the parties involved.

      It is strictly impossible to model every variation of human anatomy necessary to please everyone. The effort require to ensure that different model combinations work together is an exponential function of the number of models. As much as I’d like to see more Samoan builds or flat-chested women, I understand that both often fall beyond reasonable expectation – the majority of young players are looking for barrel-chested men, gangly hipster builds, and boobs the size of watermelons.

      On the other hand, there certainly is an almost endemic bias in the direction of WASP characters, as everyone’s been saying here. If you’re lucky there’s a token black option, though the more-limited body choice means they generally come out looking like a white guy dipped in coffee. Then again, it’s even more rare to be able to make your character left-handed.

      At any rate, at some point these two influences have to meet. Somewhere, limitations in character flexibility stop being racist/handist and start being reasonably justifiable limits to self-expression. The only way past this is to allow custom models and images to be uploaded, which comes with its own problems.

      I believe this guy has crossed that line. In an effort to make a point that, well whatever his point is, he’s passed beyond reasonable self-expression into simple nitpicking.

      Look at the character options for Guild Wars Nightfall: Ranger and Mesmer. Note that in Nightfall there is in fact one token white option – but you can make black characters fitting every interpretation of the term. Fox’s complaint is not that he can’t make a black character, but that he can make a black character with dreadlocks and a bandit-style mask but not a masqerade style mask, or a black character with a masquerade mask and no dreadlocks, but not both. There’s a good reason why you can’t do that and it has nothing to do with race – the dreadlock model would intersect the mask model and it’d look like your mask had its own hairdo.

      To me, citing that petty of a restriction crosses the line into unreasonable territory, particularly for a game which otherwise bends over backward to give the guy exactly what he claims to want. But, then, that’s what That Guy does, and just using the term can convey this entire discussion in two words to anyone familiar with tabletop roleplaying.

      • Halloween Jack says:

        Yes, thanks. There was That Guy on the City of Heroes LiveJournal community for a while, who posted only to whine about increasingly specific things regarding the CoH character creator and its alleged deficits. I think that one of his last complaints was that the game didn’t allow him to place upper-arm armbands on either the left or right arm, specifically, which apparently denotes dominance or submission in some subcultures. This was a big problem for him.

  8. kvivian says:

    Great discussion. As a female and long time gamer, I totally agree with those who aspire to create a highly customized self-image in games. Nothing is as good as text, but if I have to have graphics, I want the graphics to give me the choices I need to do what I want to do. Even within a “world concept”. I have two comments.

    1. Responding to SKT, the reason some people respond to the “minute details” is that people play for different reasons. Why do you think they introduced crafting and skills and factions into games? It was to give players who prefer exploring and creating something to do besides hack and slash (or shoot and wreck). Not all people (me included) play games for the “game mechanics” or to “win” something. Some of us play for the beauty of the execution, the social interactions, or the imagination it allows us to use as we customize our own gaming experience. Those are the ones who care about “minute details”…and appreciate them.

    2. I have used Robbie Dingo’s wonderful “Mask” video many times to demonstrate to new gamers how amazing and self-expressive an avatar can be. You might really enjoy investing about 4 minutes to see displayed, in a concrete way, with amazing variety, the possibilities that the word “avatar” can mean.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=naSOCHeF3P0

  9. pecoto says:

    Most of your good fantasy and /or roleplaying games these days are easily mod-able to allow nearly any type of character imagineable. In Oblivion and Fallout for example, there are literally dozens if not hundreds of fan-created mods that will let you play literally any character your heart desires: Robot, Centaurs, naked elf women with ridiculous proportions, talking dogs….you name it. While it is interesting to talk about, this dis-satisfaction with the character avatars presented, and tying it into race matters in the “real” world smacks of both laziness and a chip on one’s shoulder. Game designers cannot be expected to always include character options that will please everyone or appeal to all people, as that is literally impossible. If you don’t like how a game handles these matters…..vote with your dollars (or Yen or whatever) and don’t play it, or mod it so your character pleases you.

  10. Anonymous says:

    If you can tolerate tights-and-fights, try City of Heroes. High on its list of nice features is that just about the only limit on your character’s appearance is that (for animation reasons) it must be an upright bilaterally symmetrical biped. None of the appearance or costume options (of which there are many, many hundreds, combinable in untold thousands of ways) are restricted, no matter which of the approximately 1,000 character sub-classes you choose.

  11. Felix Mitchell says:

    @zikzak: I wasn’t saying there aren’t a dearth of black characters in games, or that it’s not a problem. My point is that if you think it’s a problem because you can only empathise with an avatar with the same skin colour as you, then you’re causing that problem, not the game developer. If the avatar is alien, then it’s doubly stupid to say you can’t empathise with it because alien race /= human race.

    “if people empathised with fantasy characters equally independent of skin color … I’d expect to see a pretty even/random distribution of skin tones and racial characteristics.”

    That’s a non-sequitur, imho. Developers have more reasons than just player empathy to choose the race of their characters. It could just as easily be because more art directors or model skinners are white.

    • Tynam says:

      That’s a non-sequitur, imho. Developers have more reasons than just player empathy to choose the race of their characters. It could just as easily be because more art directors or model skinners are white.

      Entirely true, but surely just as much of a problem. Ultimately, if people are put off playing because they’re annoyed by the simplistic caricatures available to them, it is a problem, and it doesn’t really matter whether it was done on purpose or out of unexamined privelege.

      (Even more so with gender issues; game design and direction is still a male-dominated industry, and it shows, badly.)

      And it can be done right. Compare City of Heroes, which has every bit as much a cartoony visual style as WoW, but much better control of character design.

      (Although it still suffers from men-have-shoulder-muscles-because-they’re-men and women-have-breasts-isn’t-that-hot. I suppose in that it’s being true to the flaws of its source material. Compare: Hulk, She-Hulk.)

      Note: It is perfectly acceptable to me that Mass Effect / Dragon Age were a serious step back from NWN in customisability. NWN was designed as an online multi-player game; such games need more flexibility so that players can create easily distinguishable, differentiated characters for the same party, and so that dozens of players can meet online without visual duplication. ME and DA are single-player designs.

      (And come to think of it, Dragon Age explicitly addresses elves-as-race-metaphor, so at least it’s trying.)

  12. Daedalus says:

    So, to engage the good professor in this dialogue…:

    “the goal is to imagine technologies that engage a wider range of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.”

    The nebulousness of these goals makes it difficult for anyone to make specific steps toward them.

    “The point is that issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and more, are meaningful dimensions”

    The counterpoint is that regarding them as meaningful dimensions is superficial. Why did Blizzard choose to make their undead males like that? What is being said about these creatures by presenting them in this way? Or, on the level of meta-commentary, what is being said about the target players, or the artists at Blizzard, by presenting them this way? And what might this mean about society in general?

    “The idea is that in the real world there is an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity…why not imagine what it means to have technologies that address these issues and how we can use them effectively.”

    In a fictional world, identity is not an objective of play. Even if it was, it would be the identity of a fictional character, not a person, not the player.

    “The approach argued for may also help to make fantastic games begin to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or even the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami.”

    I think this is misapprehending the medium: games and novels are entirely different beasts. That said, the concept of game-art is intriguing to me, but I think the method needs to arise out of itself rather than out of a change in existing genre (you’re not going to change the system, but you might be able to add something to the conversation).

    “However, no matter what, the types of characters in games are often related to real world social values and categories. It can be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations over and over.”

    Media thrives on stereotype. Murakami, for all her genius, doesn’t affect society nearly as deeply as a Harlequin romance novel. It’s not about what is presented to us, it’s about what we, as a mass market, as a broader society, have decided we want. It’s a reflection of us, not a thing done to us.

    “That is exactly the sort of thing being argued for here. Meaningful character creation — not just tired archetypes and game-mechanics oriented roles.”

    Archetypes serve the purpose of an easily communicated package of qualities. Roles serve the purpose of allowing success at the game. We can reach beyond them, but there is little need or motivation to do so (or else Second Life would be more popular than WoW).

    “Rather, it is to realize that our identities in games, virtual worlds, social networking sites, and related media exist 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).”

    That’s a useful literacy to develop, but it’s a psychological realization about a psychological reality — the interaction between the self and the social structure in which one finds oneself — that transcend any 0′s and 1′s. The games point is a smaller point in a much, much broader dialogue.

  13. andygates says:

    I’m not sure how much it points out inherent racism in either the game or the player, but it sure as hell points out the cheesy cliché in the game-world.

    Aside: you try getting a deep tan and bleach-blond friendly muttonchops in games… it’s almost as hard.

    In the real world there are people who are smart and beautiful — the balance of physical stats is fakery to stop every player turning into That Guy. Back in the old days, you’d get your stats total randomly too, and it was common to have a couple of untermensch get fed to the kobolds before rolling up a survivable character.

    When you’re paying to play, that’s unacceptable, so you get artifical balance and all sorts of weirdness spinning out of that decision.

  14. Daedalus says:

    “Because video games have a long and widely known history of being a medium by and for white boys.”

    I would really dispute that. There’s a strong boy’s club, but it’s not very racially segregated, and the boy’s club element of it has always been challenged (to varying degrees of success, but video games dig into the gender issues of high school in a weird way). It’s no more a white’s club than any other media is (though it’s probably more of a boy’s club than other media, it might not even be that: how many bigwig female directors are there?).

    Which is, I think the Prof’s salient point, and something I do agree with: we need new cultural archetypes.

  15. BadIdeaSociety says:

    Try to make a blond-haired, blue-eyed white slim guy in Fantasy Star Portable or Massive Action Game. PSP features avatars that resemble the current fashion aesthetic trends in Japan. MAG… well… I am not certain what the makers of that game were thinking. The characters don’t resemble anyone I have ever met in my life.

    Don’t take it personally.

  16. Kimzajc says:

    It’s frustrating to hear the same tired arguments and deflections happen in a conversation about race on BoingBoing, once again.

    @FelixMitchell – that’s one of the most crazy-making arguments I’ve ever heard, that people of color are somehow experiencing a “failure of empathy” because they can’t get it up for characters that are designed for and by white people. That’s like saying someone with a peanut allergy is experiencing a “failure of empathy with peanut-eaters.” People of color in this country navigate popular media that is informed by centuries of exclusion and exploitation. We watch TV shows that, intentionally or not, exclude our faces, or include them as tokens. The desire for inclusion is not, in fact some kind of pathology. Were black people who fought for integration in major league baseball suffering from a failure of empathy because they couldn’t somehow sublimate their petty racial concerns and root for all-white players on all-white teams?

    The many, many arguments in favor of continuing segregation and whitewashing in game avatars are pretty well countered by Latoya Peterson’s awesome article in Cerise called “Racial Inclusiveness in Gaming.”

    Here, she quotes Olliemoon:

    “This is their way of saying “I’m not racist, therefore racism isn’t my problem.” This argument pisses me off because it places the blame on people of color, basically saying that if people of color chose to make an issue of race, then all they’re doing is perpetuating segregation between races and fostering racism. The same shit is placed on women who want non-sexist spaces, gays who want to be acknowledged as existing, and so on. The second we try to say “Hey, we’re being ignored over here!” people with privilege jump all over us saying “No, we’re just all part of one big happy family that happens to be white, male, christian, heterosexual, rich and abled so why are you trying to start your own group? What’s wrong with you? You’re making yourself different, so it’s not our fault if we’re prejudiced against you!” BAH, I say!”
    – Olliemoon, Iris Gaming Boards

    Couldn’t have said it better. Peterson also lays out a five-point solution to the pervasive whitewashing of games and gaming. Fox Harrel is just one of MANY activists in an ongoing conversation about race and gaming.

    • Felix Mitchell says:

      @Kimzajc

      Please don’t attack me; I’m not denying that people of colour are marginalised from games. That clearly happens.

      I felt I said everything clearly at the beginning: “If you can’t empathise with an Elf because he’s a white Elf, then maybe you’re the racist.” That’s it. I’m not appologising for developers only using white elves and never black elves.

      But take a look at GTA San Adreas: I’m white and I felt empathy with the player character CJ, who is black. So this makes me ask; if Harrell can’t empathise with Tommy Vercetti from Vice City because Vercetti is white and Harrell is black, what is the difference here? Is it my white priviledge here that means I don’t mind what skin colour my avatar has, but Harrell does? I mean, please explain this because I don’t want to upset anyone.

      As for the peanut analogy, I’m completely confused about that.

      • Anonymous says:

        “Is it my white priviledge here that means I don’t mind what skin colour my avatar has, but Harrell does? I mean, please explain this because I don’t want to upset anyone.”

        Yes; that is exactly what privilege means. What others here are saying is not that privilege makes some people bad and some people good; they’re saying that it makes some people more aware of problems and some people less aware of those same problems. Privilege isn’t a quality of your character, it’s a blind spot that the privileged don’t have to think about. Now, how people react to their privilege, and their blind spots, once pointed out, IS definitely going to reflect on their character.

        Privilege 101: if you don’t have to worry about something, and are confused as to why other people do, you are experiencing the effects of your privilege.

        It’s not about empathy when you’re explicitly presented with a character who’s not exactly like you. It’s about the unconscious luxury of not having to notice that you can create a character that makes sense to you, that expresses what you want to express, and other people can’t.

        • Cassandra says:

          Yes; that is exactly what privilege means. What others here are saying is not that privilege makes some people bad and some people good; they’re saying that it makes some people more aware of problems and some people less aware of those same problems. Privilege isn’t a quality of your character, it’s a blind spot that the privileged don’t have to think about. Now, how people react to their privilege, and their blind spots, once pointed out, IS definitely going to reflect on their character.

          This is a *fantastic* 1-paragraph summary of privilege.

        • Cicada says:

          “Privilege 101: if you don’t have to worry about something, and are confused as to why other people do, you are experiencing the effects of your privilege.”

          As an entertaining correlary– even if you’re not confused about why it bothers other people, you still don’t have to worry about it. Whee!

      • zikzak says:

        Is it my white priviledge here that means I don’t mind what skin colour my avatar has, but Harrell does?

        Yeah, exactly. Because video games have a long and widely known history of being a medium by and for white boys. So when you and I encounter a video game, we default to assuming that it’s intended for us. Making the protagonist a different race, gender, etc. doesn’t bother us, because it would take a lot to make us feel alienated from a medium that’s so consistently targeted towards us. And in the case of GTA:SA, we’d be right: despite the fact that the protagonist is black, the game was designed by an overwhelmingly white team with a white audience in mind.

        On the other hand, people of color or a women often tend to assume by default that video games are /not/ intended for them, because of the same gaming history and culture that makes us so comfortable with them. So it’s not enough to just assume “if white people are comfortable playing black characters, black people will be comfortable playing white characters”. A game has to make a concerted effort to dispel that initial assumption, because the potential non-white non-male audience is already primed to feel alienated.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Fox Harrell is now Associate Professor of Digital Media at MIT.

  18. Pinkhair says:

    The guy must hate Team Fortress.

  19. romulusnr says:

    MMORPGS are actually quite racist in the technical sense, but it’s OK, because they aren’t REAL races.

    Except in some cases (e.g. WOW’s obviously Native American inspired Tauren — or SW:TPM’s Caribbean/African inspired Gungan or Asian inspired Neimoids) they are based on real races. And therein, real-world stereotypes are seeped in.

    Of course, Fantasy/Sci-Fi depends heavily on stereotype and pigeon-holing. This is after all the same genre that invented such things as “desert worlds” or “water worlds” or “forest worlds”… despite the fact that OUR real world has all of those things and more on ONE world. So goes it in sci-fi/fantasy.

    I always wondered what the reaction would be to creating a racist WOW guild. “No Gnomes Or Dwarves Allowed.”

  20. Cassandra says:

    I heard Mr. Harrell speak at MIT this fall and demonstrate some of the artworks you profile above. I would have liked to hear more about his Griot system and how it works, maybe see a demo–but what I think he’s doing is in an interesting programming-as-language space. It’s really interesting to me to see that how we define and present collaborative online projects really skews how people view those projects. For instance, projects like DefineMe Chimera look like art here since they’re presented as art, but could just as easily look like fun time-killers on Facebook were they instead concieved of and marketed of that way–but they’re not!

  21. andyhavens says:

    What is a “literary artist?” I’m a writer and a poet myself… am I missing something?

  22. Fox Harrell says:

    I am thrilled at all of the responses and dialogue. In the spirit of dialogue and genuine desire to engage and grow, I offer a list of 10 follow-up thoughts.

    1) On race. The points argued in the article do not all revolve around race. Really, since this is about research, the goal is to imagine technologies that engage a wider range of imaginative expression, social awareness/critique, fun, empowerment, and more.

    2) On personal motivations. The game examples discussed represent personal preference. One is allowed to prefer Undead that look more mysterious (such as “lich-like” or other similar Undead types — the idea is a male analog to the female Undead which can look much more like the Corpse Bride) than like a Sid Vicious zombie on steroids. One is also allowed to believe that such options would break the game maker’s (Blizzard’s) coherent cartoony aesthetic. The point is that issues like aesthetics, body-type, posture, and more, are meaningful dimensions. In the real world or tabletop role-playing it would be easy to simply imagine these attributes — they do not need to be built into rules. Yet, in software they are implemented through algorithmic and data-structural constraints. Why not imagine how to do better without allowing players to break the game or slow things down?

    3) On the bigger picture. The game examples I raise are, to some extent, rhetorical devices. They address fashion, body language, gender, culture, and more. The idea is that in the real world there is an incredible amount of nuance for representing identity. Identities are much more than race and gender. Identities change over time, they change based on context. Research is forward looking — why not imagine what it means to have technologies that address these issues and how we can use them effectively. That includes making coherent gameworlds and not bogging people down during or before gameplay. The rhetorical devices may be more, or less, successful. But 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 more. As noted, these are internal issues. But we can go further. New computational approaches are possible that 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 allows for AI-based composition of multimedia assets, including characters in games. Let’s imagine and create technologies that can do more — and then deploy them in the most effective ways whether for entertainment, social critique, or social networking.

    5) On fiction as social commentary. The approach argued for may also help to make fantastic games begin to approach the nuanced analyses of fiction writers like Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, or even the introspective metaphysical work of Haruki Murakami. There is a tradition of fantastic fiction as social critique. Tabletop gamers may know of the game “Shock: Social Science Fiction” as a good indie example of this.

    6) On characters different from one’s self. The article does not point to discomfort with playing characters such as elves with pale skin, or suggest that one should inherently feel uncomfortable playing a role that is far from a real life conception of identity. Rather, it begins with the ability to happily play characters ranging from elves to mecha pilots. This is a wonderful affordance of many games. But even more, it is great to be able to play non-anthropomorphic characters and many other options. I have done research on this issue to describe different ways that people related to their characters/avatars: some are “mirror players” who want characters that want characters that are like themselves, others are “character users” who see their identities as tools, and others still are “character players” who use their characters to explore imaginative settings and alternative selves in playful ways (this is the nutshell version). However, no matter what, the types of characters in games are often related to real world social values and categories. It can be disempowering to encounter stereotypical representations over and over.

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

    8) On platforms. The research mentioned looks at not only games, but also at social networking sites, online accounts, and avatars. There are some strong overlaps between them, despite the obvious differences. Looking at what each allows and does not allow can yield valuable insights.

    9) On this guy, that guy, and the other guy. Offering appropriate constraints for gameworlds and allowing for seamlessly dynamic characters is important. Ideally, one outcome of this research would be ways to disallow “That Guy” (described as a particular type of disruptive role-player) to ruin the game. That said, labels (like “That Guy”) can obfuscate the issues at hand. So can a focus on details rather than the general potential of exploring new possibilities. The goal is not to offer every nuanced and finicky option, but rather 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 needs to be done in a sensible way that adds meaning and salience to the game. Examples 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 more than there are archetypical categories. Let’s think about how to enable these categories in software.

    10) On the goal. The ultimate goal is not a totalizing system that can handle any customization. Rather, it is to realize that our identities in games, virtual worlds, social networking sites, and related media exist 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). In the face of all of this complexity, one option is to develop technologies to support meaningful and context-specific identity technologies — for example rather than just superficial race, gender, masquerade masks, and the tinting of elves, let’s think about how to use all of these to say something about the world and the human condition.

    Thank you all for considering these ideas, even those who disagree. Your concerns may have been clarified, and they may have been exacerbated, but this is what productive dialogue is all about. I’ll leave it for others to respond now.

    • RevelryByNight says:

      Thank you, Fox, and all the commenters for one of the better conversations about white privilege I’ve read in a while.
      White privilege is, I believe, one of the subtler, and therefore more nefarious aspects of racism, in that- as was so eloquently explained earlier- it has nothing to do with malice, but everything to do with blind spots. We still believe in our culture that White Heterosexual Male = Default Way of Being. It’s why so many of our games, our books, our tv shows assume that a white male protagonist is the normal, and therefore the only bankable way to be.
      I applaud anyone who speaks up to question this- helping all of us understand that our experience and expression is not everyone’s and that we all deserve to have our own experience mirrored back to us through the culture we consume.

  23. Anonymous says:

    Brother, try POTCO for the looks. Nevermind the fools. Say hi to Solomon Dreadskull for me.

  24. Pipenta says:

    A friend, after she learned I did a bit of gaming, suggested I try World of Warcraft. After eyeballing the possible avatars, I refused. Every one was so tacky it made me flinch. Really, they all looked like they’d stepped off the side of an airbrushed van or motorcycle gas tank.

    “I can’t do this.” I told her. “I couldn’t play one of those avatars and still respect myself in the morning.”

    Above and beyond the general cringe factor, all the female avatars are designed for the male gaze. Seriously, they have boobs bigger than their heads. Any one breast on a female character is bigger than her skull.

    Eeeew.

    Yeah, I kind of get how the white, white, whiteness of the characters could be seriously off-putting to players of color. As a woman, I sure don’t want to running around in one of these blow-up-dolls elfkins, not unless it was in a snarky game written by Robert Rankin.

    But why be an elf when you can be a disco bandit? The hell with WoW, Prof. Harrel. Come play Kingdom of Loathing where the characters are stick figures and there’s nary a bouncing boob to be seen.

  25. McGrude says:

    Interesting. There is a character style that I often play too, if the game allows it, and all too often it doesn’t look quite right.

    I would like to point out though that the character creation tool in Elderscrolls IV Oblivion gives you a great deal of latitude when creating your character. Although the default African styled characters were Redguards the tools would allow you to create a create a character of almost any race* appear African (or Asian, or whatever). The tools permitted changing facial shape, eye shape, and nose shape as well as a wide range of skin colors and the full gamut of hair color.

    * Orcs, Khajit, Argonians being the exception.

  26. Felix Mitchell says:

    Making a race issue out of fantasy games is a tenuous argument. If you can’t empathise with an Elf because he’s a white Elf, then maybe you’re the racist.

    Why assume that black hominids in a game have any connection to black humans in reality?

    Is Lt. Commander Worf from Star Trek an inspiring black character? The character has just as much in common with black viewers as a tribble does.

    What about other skin colours? Can black people relate to green avatars better than purple avatars?

    • zikzak says:

      If you can’t empathise with an Elf because he’s a white Elf, then maybe you’re the racist.

      Why then are the people (or elves, etc) in fantasy games consistently overwhelmingly white? After all, if people empathised with fantasy characters equally independent of skin color, then it wouldn’t really matter what race they were. Therefore I’d expect to see a pretty even/random distribution of skin tones and racial characteristics. But by some coincidence, I see overwhelmingly white people every time. It seems pretty obvious to me that the reason the characters are white is because that’s what the intended audience relates best to.

    • Tdawwg says:

      Which is why all of the characters on ST: TNG wore those visors that obscured their eyes (and thus their humanity), and not just Levar Burton’s character? For real?

      If you think sci-fi is “really” about those far-off lands, and not a way of talking about planet Earth and its crazy people–and its even-crazier fantasies and chimeras, like “race”–then you really haven’t been paying attention.

      • Felix Mitchell says:

        I realise plenty of sci-fi stories are analogies about race, but that doesn’t mean black aliens = black people. Aliens wouldn’t have the same history as us. The same applies to humans in alternate realities or in the far future.

        • JackThompson says:

          “I realise plenty of sci-fi stories are analogies about race, but that doesn’t mean black aliens = black people. Aliens wouldn’t have the same history as us. The same applies to humans in alternate realities or in the far future.”

          Especially considering a good many of the Klingons on ST:TNG and its brethren were played by white people in makeup. Drawing the corollary between dark-skinned aliens and black people really is a strange concept – if you take the comparison to a character-based extreme, Star Trek would seem to be proposing that black people drink a lot, listen to opera, and spend their off-time poking each other with cattle prods.

        • Tdawwg says:

          That’s a different argument to your earlier, more far-reaching

          Why assume that black hominids in a game have any connection to black humans in reality?

          and

          The character has just as much in common with black viewers as a tribble does.

          which are both false.

          It’s not just that sci-fi is an allegory about race, or any other aspect of the culture that produces it: this would be more or less conscious, part of the script, etc. It’s also that racial attitudes and ideas are shown unconsciously, or are sublimated into other things, and the “real” racial attitudes and ideas of the present culture intrude on the fiction: so it’s easy to read Geordie’s eye-goggles as a sign of black male disempowerment, or to see Anglo-Euro-American attitudes about race in the fact that white humans–despite the near-certainty of white humans being a statistical minority in the universe, lol–are the normative visual and cultural template in much, if not most, sci-fi, with non-white human aliens and non-human aliens often being portrayed as “colorful” cultural Others. Cf. Jar-Jar Binks.

    • ian71 says:

      I agree completely.

      It’s a losing battle for game designers to try to anticipate a hundred different body types. Be thankful that you get to -choose- what your character looks like to begin with. In Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar I had my character chosen for me and never complained. Sack up.

      If you want to ultra-customize your character then go with a text-based system.

    • Anonymous says:

      Just responding to “Is Lt. Commander Worf from Star Trek an inspiring black character? The character has just as much in common with black viewers as a tribble does.”

      In the original Star Trek Klingons were asian. When Star Trek I came out the Klingons became black. It wasn’t until much much later with Lieutenant Worf that you had a Klingon who wasn’t a stereotype for evil.

  27. Anonymous says:

    About less intelligence in Oblivion. That is because the Redguards are a strong muscular/physical race. In the oblivion world this is about the opposite of magic. And the intelligence stat is a measure on how good you are at magic. So it’s not a form of racism, it’s how the game works; the big strong guy is good with the sword, and the small skinny elf is good with magic.

  28. JackThompson says:

    The only one of those games I have any in-depth experience with is WoW, but his problems with the undead character he wanted to play seem to be a bit off-base.

    “In World of Warcraft, my first inclination was to play a spectral, Undead, ghostlike character – but the males all had poor posture, distended jaws, hulking shoulders, and silly hairstyles.”

    Not to put too fine a point on it, but the undead are corpses brought back to life. I’m not entirely sure what kind of character he was looking to create, but his issue here seems not to be one of limited cosmetic avatar creation options but of there not being a specific type of character available to him. He wants to play a ghost-like character; there are no ghost-like playable characters in WoW.

    Now, if he had an issue with the size of WoW’s avatar’s breasts, I’d be totally with him. But his issue isn’t one solvable by more character options but by introducting a type of playable character that doesn’t exist in the game universe.

  29. Anonymous says:

    One of the things I hate is how extreme the styles can be in games; for men the facial feature are often on a triangle of a bishie Justin Bieber boy face, a generic heroin junkie underwear model, or psycho driver Tick level lantern chin. And then Ladies it’s creepy giant-eyed animu loli or disinterested off-hours stripper and the only armor is robes or tittie pasty tinfoil covers.

    It’s like having to choose between a VW Beetle, ricer, or jacked out truck.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Ah, oblivion. When I noticed that Redguards get a minus to intelligence(or whatever it was, it’s been a while since I played it) I winced at how wrong that was. I’d also like to prof the counter argument that there are limited resources any developer has, and that due to a lack of time and oversight of the designers particular characteristics or character types may be left out. To be honest, in oblivion I chose the dark elf race simply because I thought they looked least bad to me. Not to mention that hair is almost always a disappointment for me; I can imagine it’s harder to do long hair than short hair, but I wish that someone would come up with some sort of algorithm for long hair so it could be more widly used. Other than those niggling complaints, I’ll have to admit I’m part of the mostly well served section of the population, but I do agree that there should be a wider array of characteristics available in games.

  31. DoktorH says:

    I agree that race and class in scifi/fantasy movies/books can indeed be a way to discuss actual race and class issues, in a gaming context, tabletop or electronic, race and class are prepackaged groups of attribute and skill modifiers to balance the gameplay. If you don’t like that the visual style you’re after doesn’t come with the modifiers you like, either A) play the game and beef up the skills/stats you like with experience or B) play something else. Also C) accept the fact that the sprites/avatars in video games are informed by certain genre archetypes/stereotypes so you won’t find to many starting characters that look like an Orc but live like an Elf.

    Unless D) you read Terry Pratchett novels, as Pratchett has a habit of turning genre stereotypes on their heads. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrot_Ironfoundersson is the example that seems relevant here. IF you want to roleplay an Orc raised by Elves who thinks/acts/dresses like an elf, by all means do so, and have fun with it!

    lastly, remember E) It’s just a game – have fun with it!

  32. Anonymous says:

    I can really empathize with this article. When Dragon Age came out, I found character creation a real step backwards from Neverwinter Nights 2 (believe it or not). In NN2 I could make a character that at least kinda looked like me (female, caramel skin tone, brown hair). In DA:O, there were literally twice as many “light-skinned” options and the “darker-skinned” options were even more unrealistic than usual and it really disappointed me.

    I believe that video game makers are artists and have a right to make the ppl of a world look as they see fit (maybe all elves are light-skinned – w/e, their vision), but part of the fun of a video game for many ppl is making a character look like them and kind of pretending they themselves are on an adventure. I realize that “darker-skinned” and female gamers are a smaller proportion of the gaming market than light-skin males, but denying that we exist, not giving us the same freedom that you seek to provide to the “pale male” demographic, etc. – that’s not good for business or for gaming in general. All businesses need to grow, and reaching out to the growing minority is just what the gaming market needs to do – not drive some away b/c they can only play a busty, Nordic-looking woman.

    I say, let designers make the world look however they want – but *character creation* needs to have broad appeal, not only for equality’s sake, but for the sake of their own businesses and industry.

  33. Clumpy says:

    Woot for social analysis and experimentation. One thing I found interesting is that I began to create non-Caucasian characters as often as possible when playing games which allow a wide spread of customization – First in Fallout 3 I created a character who looked quite a bit like a young Andre Braugher with a wide beard, and in Mass Effect 1 and 2 a very provincial-looking Filipino character with thin features.

    But I never played as a woman.

    My decision wasn’t a gimmicky one, but a reflection I felt of the Western tendency to use dumb-looking beefy marines as protagonists in every story. Still, gender appears to be a less malleable identity than race for me (as a male) as I have trouble roleplaying female characters. This may not reflect well on me but I find it more interesting than anything.

  34. Haylwood says:

    Hey I think I met Mr. Harrel at the CHI 2010 conference in Atlanta last week! Was very surprised to see him here on BoingBoing, although I shouldn’t have been because the project he was presenting was definitely wonderful things. I won’t pretend to understand it fully, but it was something like auto-generated storytelling imagery based on collaborative poetry. Very cool.

  35. JoshP says:

    what I like about the article and our shared hallucinations in the virtual is the repetition of the word ‘play.’ It seems that more and more of our learning experiences and self discoveries come from this instinctual boundary pushing. It’s not just games but our relationships, our work habits, everything.
    the definition that follows for me to work from is that play allows us a chance for knowledge without adverse moral sanction. But maybe i’m writing too much into it.
    ideally the better the nuance, the better the game, the better the introspection, the better the nuance. Unless we throw caution to the wind and just wanna go dada.
    What is salient still, tho, is that when I was 5, atari may have been fun, but it wasn’t nuanced. Now??? Art, culture, everything can come inside the digital universe.
    aight. no more novel… :)

  36. Beelzebuddy says:

    This guy seems like That Guy. For the non-roleplayers in the audience, “That Guy” is a tabletop roleplaying term. He’s the guy who mostly just exists to derail the party, who seems to care way too much about what his character is wearing, who views every attempt to move things along as Stifling His Creativity – a crime which can barely be encompassed by mere words.

    Nor is there any point in humoring That Guy, because That Guy’s demands will expand as far as you’re willing to put up with it. Look at the entry for Guild Wars: Nightfall. It doesn’t have a model for every possible combination of hair style and costume? Hah! Inadequate for his Self-Expression! (Nightfall, by the way, is set in a wonderfully fantastical pastiche of sub-Saharan Africa, Persia, and the desert from Beetlejuice. Go play it.) Or take WoW – in a game where everything is a caricature, he whines that his was the wrong one.

    I could go on, but everything else in the post would follow a similar trend. That Guy isn’t happy unless he’s being stifled by an unfair restriction, no matter how far he has to go to find one.

    • MelSkunk says:

      Yeah, that Nightfall thing struck me as WAY too nitpicky. I know it’s difficult, hell, close to impossible to find black characters in video games. But whining that the one game designed around them doesn’t let you have the exact pretty clothes you like? Not cool.

      Yes, a lot of games WAY underplay different character options for people who are not white (or men who are not build like brickhouses and women who aren’t having the giant boobies), but this just comes off as petty. Same with the comment that the undead characters in WoW look weirdly.. um.. undead? Yes, and the Taurens have horns, your point?

      It makes the point of the whole thing, while valid, sound less so as it seems like one has to dredge up examples.

      Why not try Second Life? We could definitely use more variety.

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