Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell


After spending his youth happily playing computer and table-top role-playing games as pale-grey-skinned elves with long, straight, silver hair (usually over one eye), or "forcing African-coifed robot pilots into the anime world of Macross," Fox Harrell says he started wanting to play characters that expressed and presented themselves in ways that captured his real world cultural values, though still set in those same fantasy worlds.

That hasn't always come easily. I asked Fox, a computer scientist and literary artist, for some examples.

Fox: In terms of software, the systems for creating identities have never seemed adequate for my self-expression. Let's just take computer role-playing games for example:

In Elder Scrolls III and IV: I wanted to create a character I could identify as African-inspired (the "Redguard race") but then was automatically made less intelligent.

In Guild Wars: Nightfall, I could make an African-inspired character – but I wanted to both have [dread]locks and wear ornate masquerade-style clothing. I could not – locks were allowed for the earthy Ranger class, and the clothes only allowed with the illusion-casting Mesmer class – never to be combined.

In Phantasy Star Online, I wanted to be elegant and clean-lined, and smartly-appointed. I could only be a female robot (called a Cast), males were always boxy and hulking.

In Neverwinter Nights, I could actually make a character I was very happy with, but in Neverwinter Nights 2 the style was removed.

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.

In these games, your appearances, abilities, eventualities and more are all often tied in with categories for race, class (profession), gender, and more. Certainly, these limitations primarily are used for game-mechanical reasons – each player takes on a different, complimentary role (though primarily only for fighting). The limitations also lend a certain coherence to the fictitious worlds of the games. Yet, I often find that my own personal choices for self-expression are unsupported. It is not just well-known issues of race and gender. What if I simply want my character to be both rootsy and dainty? It all becomes more complicated when abilities are so closely tied with categories and appearances.

Much more is at stake than just fun and games. Prejudice, bias, stereotyping, and stigma are built not only into many games, but other forms of identity representations in social networks, virtual worlds, and more. These have real world effects on how we see ourselves and each other. Even in systems that have very open identity creation options, like Second Life, there are still different valuations for skins, social groups and categories being formed, people playing out different personae…one realizes that identity is social matter, because even if one can create the perfect avatar, it does not mean that others will respond to it in the desired way that the person sees himself or herself. This means that even in social networking software, we create profiles that ostensibly represent our real selves, but they are limited by many of the same constraints as characters in games.

Fox is a professor and director of the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab/Studio at Georgia Tech. His research and software development are all about creating new opportunities for fluid, nuanced narratives, identities, and social categories to take shape–and shift shape–online.


Shape-shifting poetics

For example, one of Fox's artworks is an AI-based interactive narrative project called Loss, Undersea in which an avatar forms and morphs based on emotional tone ( demo video). Here's how Fox described it to me:

Fox: The avatar starts as a human and is blended further and further with sea creatures. Artistically, it describes the poignant pathos of a civilization slipping into the sea, a transforming being losing more and more of herself or himself, mindless traveling through life as if on a moving platform. Such visions capture for me a sense of dissolution of joy, daily struggle for happiness, and the contrast between the rich mental lives of all individuals and narrow social prejudices that constrain people to discrete boxes. It also features poetry generated based on emotional tones selected by user actions.

Profile pic as community-made metaphor

Another project in the works at the ICE Lab/Studio is DefineMe: Chimera (beta-version), a Facebook app where users collectively determine their friends' identities.

Fox: If I were to enter that "Lissa is courageous like a lion" and someone else enter that "Lissa is strong like a stegosaurus," the system would output a hybrid animal images as an avatar. The idea is to look at how people define each other socially, like the collective ratings of sellers on eBay, but through richer imagery and with more nuance. It is also about the difference between one's self-conception and how others might see her, an idea written about as long ago as W.E.B. DuBois's introduction of the term "Double Consciousness" in The Souls of Black Folk.


In the end, I design these technologies for two reasons: (1) for users to represent identities in ways that are empowering and have the potential to increase their self-efficacy and agency in the real world, and (2) for artists to be able to use technologies to express, criticize, and change the ways that identities are used to oppress, discriminate, and otherwise disempower. Avatars may or may not be able to serve these needs, but basing such technologies on the best practices people use in the real world may be a step in enabling both of these directions.

Conjuring social change through computation

The young people I work with at Youth Radio-Youth Media International often write about their own shifting identities and question the social categories applied to them (see, for example, Mark Anthony Waters' story questioning solid gold masculinity). In light of all his work on technologies of identity, I asked Fox what he thinks young people need to know and be able to do if they're going to fully realize their own potentials and participate in the work and play that matters to them and their communities.

Fox: I celebrate the skill and panache with which many young people can use media creatively and form new communities and practices. At the same time, I want them also to be able to create media themselves and not have to rely upon frameworks that others, who may not have their best interests at heart, create for them. This means that computational literacy is not just using computers, but it also is not just learning computer science. It also should mean being able to think critically about how data-structures and processes both operate and impact the world. But we should not even stop there! They need to learn to think critically about how these technologies empower or disempower them, and how such computational media might be taken up more imaginatively in order to conjure phantasms with the potential to change their world for the better.

What's more…

Though Fox's experiments let users re-imagine characters' outward appearances, what strikes me about his work is its appreciation of interiority, shifting and messy as it can be. It also gets me thinking about Henry Jenkins' idea that one of the hallmarks of digital media literacy is what he calls " distributed cognition," which holds that thought doesn't live inside an individual's brain. Cognition takes root and evolves across multiple minds, through social activities and connections. It seems to me Fox's DefineMe app pushes that thinking into a new realm: distributed identity formation. It's not that I want or need other people to tell me who I am. It's that I hope we can find and form communities that care enough to try.