Today I want to explore the implications of avatars as tools to express our lesser natures.
This week in Game Design we focused on characters in games and read a selection from Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics.” In his chapter on the vocabulary of comics he discusses how we humans extend our selves through tools and using our awareness, bodies, and senses. He uses these examples below and later argues that when reading comics, comic artists use specific techniques so that the reader can see themself in the experience of the comic. Jesse expanded on this perspective by proposing that we may similarly project ourselves onto our avatars.
A couple of weeks ago I kicked off this blog trying to lay some groundwork in addressing biases that game designers and players have, particularly related to characters. I think this week’s class reading naturally extends this thought into the realm of player agency, action, and choice as enacted through game characters and avatars.
There are a lot of ways that players enact disrespectful, insidious, evil, or mischievous instincts through games. Some games even promote this! For example, in the Fable games you are encouraged to consider the morality of your player and can see that your avatar changes through the good or evil of your choices. Many players may choose to do evil just to see the horns that protrude from their head.
(tw: sexual aggression) However, there seems to be a line we cross where the “magic circle” of the game is exited and we tiptoe into the realm of reality. There is a vast history in competitive games of “teabagging” or rubbing your avatar’s crotch in the face of a fallen enemy. Here players are using their avatars (their extensions of self) to digitally/physically violate and disrespect the avatar of another real life player. This behavior is ubiquitous and communally learned and taught. While it may have begun as a silly tactic to represent victory, players more dangerously also use this action as a type of psychological warfare and to discourage newcomers and women from playing the game. Increasingly more serious and disturbing versions of this digital violation are emerging alongside the technology that enables it (see Jordan Belamire’s article discussing “My First Virtual Reality Groping“). Belamire writes about the embodied and very real nature of the sexual aggression she faced in just three minutes of virtual reality with other online players. Game designers gave, acknowledged, and continue to give players these abilities through the extensions of self they provide.
If we buy into McCloud’s proposal that avatars are not just ‘things’ but a way of projecting ourselves into a fictional space, what do we bring back with us when that projection stops?
In class Jesse proposed that in the future we may desire and have more deeply interactive game characters who learn about us and learn from us. Immediately I remembered Tay, Microsoft’s AI chat bot who became a neo-nazi spouting constant streams of hate speech in less than 24 hours of learning from the internet. My goal as an HCI researcher and game designer is not to shoot down every new technology and interactive ability with negativity, but to encourage my colleagues to pause and consider the ramifications of their work, and to envision a world where the work they do inches us closer to a better reality. What *should* Tay have done? Was it her job to become a companion that mirrors and socializes according to the people she’s surrounded by? She should have encouraged them to alter their views – to be more empathetic – to stop being racist assholes? What is a ‘desirable’ outcome in this situation? Technologists and designers cannot afford to punt on these questions. How can we responsibly prevent this as game designers when our players can be so flawed and so desirous to express their worst tendency in the relative “safety” of games?
Post publication note: Many people who read this article used GTA as an example of a ‘safe’ game that encourages the fun of ‘breaking the rules.’ While certainly a relevant precursor, my concerns lie primarily in the realm of these deeply embodied, highly interactive systems that amplify and mirror thoughts and behaviors that can be truly damaging. I am NOT saying that ‘violent video games are all bad.’