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Neoliberal Space and Race in Virtual Worlds: The Power of the Minority

The way racial minorities are protrayed in video games versus open space virtual worlds are extremely different, as noted by Lisa Nakamura in her article Neoliberal Space and Race in Virtual Worlds. Although concise, Naakamura’s article touches on the important differences of racial representation in World of Warcraft and Second Life. Being an avid user of both programs, I was intrigued by the comparison of minorities within these spaces.

Nakamura first considers racial minority in World of Warcraft, noting that all races, regardless of minority or majority status among users or the franchise’s folklore, receive unique benefits that impact game play but that are specifically designed to be equally viabile within the combative virtual world of Azeroth. Each racial bonus is tied into the designed cultural identity of each of the various races and while they all have specific racial backgrounds that determines a player’s capabilities in terms of factions and classes (combat roles), the cultural identity permeates all interactions the user has within the game, from speech to gestures to movements.

The problem with this, as Nakamura discusses, is that due to the highly structured nature of video games like World of Warcraft, the user has little imput into the design of the cultural identity of their character. They can choose physical features from a minimal list of options but are forced into specific protrayals of ethnicity upon selecting a race. Some of these protrayals reference actual cultures in stereotypical ways; Trolls are satirized stereotypes of people native to Jamaica, a thinly veiled reference to cultural ‘blackness’ and Tauren strongly rely on tropes that are normally associated with native cultures across North America.

By utilizing actual racial minorities as a basis for some of the in-world races, Blizzard is associating the respective minorities with these virtual racial representations. Nakamura extends this example to point out that while stereotyping the races involved, Blizzard is empowering the minority in the virtual world by affording them equal capabilities and resources as the other races in the game. Trolls and Tauren receive cities, classes, and racial benefits that make them as preferred for certain combat roles as the races referencing visible majorities, such as Humans; a Tauren’s racial bonus, Warstomp, made them one of the top choices for users wanting to ‘tank’ (be the central target for attacks from enemies while the rest of the group worked to defeat the attacker(s)). Minorities are not under priviledged in World of Warcraft, leading to a virtual world where racial equality is relatively achieved by design, especially when compared to the actual world and to virtual worlds where users decide the power of minorities.

In Second Life, Nakamura expresses concern over the treatment of visible minorities by other users. As I documented in my research paper’s literature review, many examples exist of users donning non-caucasian skins and finding friends and strangers alike treated them very differently. Unlike the structured and policed worlds of video games, virtual worlds are open to the determination of the users within them. This leaves them exposed to the same social inequalities as in the physical world, where a visible minority will receive different treatment from others. Although Nakamura doesn’t explore this too much, I think that since there is such a strong societal push to conform to the idealized caucasian representation within Second Life (as noted in my earlier blog post on avatar separation), choosing to be a visible minority or non-human avatar draws more attention than in the physical world since users are free to design their avatars anyway they wish. This freedom serves as a benefit and a curse as users are judged by their choices to conform or not conform in addition to the judgement of their avatar’s appearance.

The freedoms of choice and design compound the issue of racism in virtual world environments. By giving more control to the users in designing their avatars, high expectations of others develop, whereas limiting options to characteristics that do not change racial identity and going so far as to equally empower all races, the structured worlds minimize racialized interactions, even with the racial stereotyping built into the game world. In the case of racial representation in the virtual world, it seems to me that minorities have the potential to cease being minorities but to be equal. Sadly, the one thing that seems to be an obstacle to that is the user variable unmanaged by design limitations.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Technics of the Subject: Avatar Separation

Emily Apter’s article Technics of the Subject: The Avatar-Drive questioned the convential interpretation of the virtual space avatar’s connection to the human user. Referencing the original definition of ‘avatar’ as a spiritual projection of the host, she presented the avatar-user relationship as a similar interaction where the avatar is not unified with the user’s identity but rather an apparition used by the user to engage with the virtual space. This caught my attention since many course readings, and even to a degree my Second Life identity research project, found users are strongly attached to the virtual identity that they create within the space.

As I tried to see how Apter could come to such an opposite view on the connection between a user and their avatar I realized that the two do not have to be mutually exlcusive since Apter’s definition centred mostly around the visual representation of the avatar but she still considered the avatar to provide a bridge for the user’s identity to cross into the virtual space. When speaking with those who were closely attached to their avatars in Second Life, the strength of the connection was closely linked to the time invested in building the avatar to most accurately resemble the user’s ideal, but not necessarily the user’s physical body. Both schools of thought agreed that the user is putting forth the true psychological self through the avatar, though Apter’s identification of the avatar as a tool of engagement went beyond the analysis of my research.

Her case for the idealistic nature of avatars was solidified all the more by the examples provided from her explorations in Second Life. The majority of avatars within the space are representations of the societal conventions of beauty: “impossibly long-legged, big-breated, muscle-rippling blondes” (Apter 2008). As in our physical lives, there is a drive to look as society idolizes even in the virtual space. However, there are users who ignore this pressure in order to make truly unique avatars, often pushing past the limitations of the physical world to achieve their idealized avatar. The dedication necessary to create a unique representation is what I believe builds the strong bond often identified when discussing the avatar-user relationship.

Apter doesn’t argue that the avatar is any less meaningful for being a tool of engagement; in fact she presents the case that users are intimately project their emotions into the creation as wholeheartedly as they feel these emotions in the actual world. Her discussion and examples reminded me of the storyline of an episode from a short-lived animated television show called Spicy City. In the episode “Love is a Download”, two complete strangers living in depressing, wretched circumstances escape into a virtual reality world-space to find peace. Their avatars are nothing like their physical bodies, but each fill the shell of the avatar with their emotions and personality, building a strong bond with each other that leads them to permanently leave their abusive and lonely worlds for love in the virtual space. In this example, the avatar became the true body of the user, changing from tool to host. In my opinion, this most closely mirrors the meaning behind the word avatar: a visual or physical manifestation into which the creator’s consciousness projects.

 
 

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The Language of New Media: New vs Digital Media

I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing the characteristics, outlined by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, that do and don’t identify new media objects but I wanted to mention them briefly because I felt he did a good job at analyzing what specifically makes a media object new rather than relying on the conventional list of descriptors. The fact he expressly avoided the use of ‘digital’ when categorizing new media was of particular interest to me; he was right to do so and in omitting it, he allowed the label of new media to apply to objects that might otherwise not have been considered due to their lack of digitization.

Some of the identifiers Manovich provided were expected, such as numerical representation and automation (though this did bring into question the nature of the artist in the new media object creation process), but the one that stood out to me was the idea of variability, specifically. As someone who builds objects in Second Life, I was very confident at the beginning of this book that new media, especially virtual media, was unique in being copiable and resulting in exact duplicates, if that was the intent. So when Manovich listed the exact opposite as being a distinct trait of new media, I was understably disbelieving.

However, Manovich made a point of highlighting aspects of new media that I hadn’t really considered a part of the object when considering duplication. I was limiting myself to the visual object, as one would consider a painting or photograph, but new media objects are multi-layered and his examples helped me to see that. He looked at everything from file size, file type, and creation date to resolution and modification permissions; he looked beyond the visual representation on the screen to the specific properties of the file. In that regard, Manovich’s points are exactly right. Even if all other characteristics are alike, duplicating a file will result in separate creation dates and unless the user has a property statistics modification tool, that is unchangeable. Even if the user did have such a program, the object would not be an exact duplicate due to the necessity to modify the properties with it.

I don’t disagree with the author or have any specific case to make that he didn’t already make, but this example and explanation was one of the first he presented that pushed me to look at media differently. His definitions convinced me to consider the platforms with which I work as new media rather than digital media. I wanted to include this post because this realization and change of view was the hook that drew me into his book. I felt challenged to think outside my conventional understanding of all things media, new and old, and Manovich approached each topic in the same point-of-view-shattering method that I often found myself re-examining my definitions and interpretations for a lot of the language surrounding new media.

 
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Posted by on July 30, 2014 in Readings

 

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The Language of New Media: Photorealistic Representation

As I touched on briefly in my last post, in The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich discusses the nature of new media to mimic old media representations rather than the natural world. This reflects Jean Baudrillard’s orders of simulacra wherein the artifical and the natural are no longer distinguishable from one another and society begins to value the representation over the original. By seeking to match the conventions of a painting or photograph rather than the natural space these media attempt to capture, we’ve most certainly determined the representation more worthy of replication.

Although Manovich presents exhaustive examples of how new media is being broken down to be less realistic and thus closer to the quality of older media like cinema (see Manovich’s computer animations in Jurassic Park example), the details that stood out to me the most was the use of the conventional frame for unconventional spaces and ignorance of the ‘life force’ of the natural world when building a virtual space.

The approach Manovich takes in dissecting the frame of new media was unique. On the one hand he presented it as a window into another space, one that extended beyond the edges of the frame through which we are looking. However, he also documented the limitations of the frame, how it can be a barrier to our viewing a completed space. The monitor is the most common ‘frame’ for new media, but it clearly references the frames of paintings and photographs, even going so far as to usurp the same terminology for orientations like portrait and landscape. In reality, Manovich notes, our vision is not rectangular, nor is it as limited in scope as a frame’s view point. In this way, we are not seeking to mimic the actual world exploratione experience. The worlds represented in photographic and painted images do not extend beyond the edges of the frame but new media such as virtual worlds do have more outside the edges of the screen. By attempting to mimic a convention developed around specific old media limitations, we are inherently limiting our ability to experience new media within its full potential.

To follow up the discussion on limitations surrounding new media, the other point Manovich made was regarding the respresentation of ‘life force’ or ‘essence’ within a media object. The challenge with non-moving images is the inability to capture the aura of nature. A common example that he provided was the lack of wind in a landscape. The inability to capture the essence of life will always be a limiting factor with representation in any artificial space.

New media has the capability to recreate a lot of aspects that could potentially mimic natural aura within the virtual space, however, no matter how much technology and artists raise the degree of realism in new media objects, capturing the true sensation of natural life within these works remains a challenge. We still rely on actors to fill movie scenes where the camera is stationary; computer graphics continue to struggle with bridigng the uncanny valley, a scale along which artificial representations of humans is measured against their degree of realism. The uncanny valley happens when a representation of a human is rendered with enough detail our eyes begin to believe the representation to be real however the representation is without ‘life force’, causing it to seem ghostly or haunting to the viewer; it is a jarring discord that often pulls the viewer out of immersion with the media object.

To speak to the impact of the uncanny valley, I am still struck by my first noticeable encounter with this phenomenon: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Although the graphics and physics of the virtual space within the movie were near perfect representations of the physical world, whenever a conversation scene took place between characters where the camera remained stationary and focussed on the faces and expressions of the characters, I was struck by the lack of ‘soul’ (‘aura’ or ‘essence’ as Manovich identifies it) behind the characters’ eyes. When they moved, I couldn’t tell if it was computer generated or live actors, but looking into their faces, I could tell instantly that they were animated images and the combined effect made for an unnervingly haunting experience while watching the movie.

Mimicry of the natural world is always going to be a challenge. I believe we could achieve it in the future but from my experiences new media is moving away from photorealism, and even natural realism, to embrace a new type of realism: virtual realism. Even from just my experiences in Second Life, I can see the push to have physical objects as we do in the natural world, but modified to suit the limits, or lack of limits, that exist in the virtual world. As with my bungee jumping project, based on an actual aparatus in the physical world, the appeal is being able to experience it beyond the limits of the original; as with everything else in the virtual space, it is a 2.0 version of the physical, unlimited by the need to mimic a space of which it will always fall short.

 

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The Language of New Media: Human Computer Interface

I’ve talked about the future development of human-computer synthesis (Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs) and about the historical development and interactivity, or lack thereof, as presented by Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media, but one final piece to the human-computer interaction discussion is to address interfaces, specifically human computer interfaces (HCIs).

Manovich explores the intent of new media interfaces as seeking to reference and mimic existing cultural interfaces. His frequent example is the controls found on audio and video equipment being translated into touchscreen buttons on an mp3 player or smartphone. These controls were transferred to the virtual space because they are part of a culturally recognizeable interface what would require little to no education on behalf of the user. A frequent barrier to access is the learning curve of new technology, so the effort to mimic familiar commands and images as interactive icons within an digital interface minimizes the challenge to adapt to something new but also provides a sense of familiarity leading to reduced anxiety over change.

I have little experience with interface-free technology, old or new, so Manovich’s analysis of the mimicry of interfaces caught my interest. We’re so focussed on the media behind the interface, it’s hard to take note of the design of the icons. In a way, this proves that new media interfaces accomplish their intended goals as they seemlessly blend in with our lives in such a way that unless an interface stops functioning as expected, we rarely give it any thought at all; the interface is not recognized as a standalone new media object in its own right.

If we wanted to put the spotlight on interfaces, an overhaul of the intent behind the design would be required. The challenge would then be finding a balance of functionality and efficiency with familiarity. I’m not sure if there are more functional or efficient design possibilities out there, but since we have been so limited by the quest to match existing interfaces, perhaps we have not fully explored all design possibilities. On the other side of the scale, though, a degree of familiarity would still be necessary in order to appeal to the majority of users. The less recognizable an interface’s commands are, the more challenging and frustrating the adaptive experience will be which could lead to a barrier to access where one had not previously existed.

Manovich considers the potential for the body to be amalgamated as part of the interface, referring specifically to immersive sensory controls such as virtual reality technology that is placed on the body. It is then that the body ceases to be solely the command initiator of the interface but also becomes fused with the interface itself, a controller linked to commands within the virtual world. As the brain might tell a user’s hand to use the A,W,S, and D keys to control an avatar in a standard video game environment, in immersive virtual reality, the brain communicates directly with the interface when it sends signals to the user’s legs to direct them to move.

Virtual reality HCI is unique since it ceases mirroring the interfaces of old media but goes straight to mimicking the physical world. I will explore this idea further with Manovich’s discussion on photorealism, but with most new media, the goal is to mimic pre-existing conventions of representation such as photographs and film, rather than the natural space. However, with the continued development of virtual reality HCI, interface design is slowly progressing to the point that the physical world and how we naturally interact with it are becoming the new mimicry goal.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2014 in Readings, Virtual Worlds

 

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The Language of New Media: Technology & the Audience

As I discussed in my last blog post about Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs, Lev Manovich also focussed on the way humanity and technology interacted as technology developped. In The Language of New Media, Manovich looked back historically to consider how a medium’s audience was engaged. Since we often interact with new and old media out of habit, his analysis of what the audience is like while experiencing a media object was surprising, mostly because I had not really considered what happens to me physically when fully immersed in a media experience.

Manovich outlined that often new media is considered to be interactive and usually that characteristic is reserved exclusively for new media. Through his examples though, it was clear that physical, old media, such as installations, were equally if not more interactive with the audience as they do not exist in a completed state until a viewer has entereed the space. With a my undergraduate studies in visual arts, this premise was not surprising to me. Where the explanation began to intrigue me was when Manovich explored the idea of the audience as captive by new media.

Starting with film, as he was inclined to do throughout most of his examples, he documented that new media was not as physically engaging since movies, video games, and standard computer-based virtual worlds required the user to sit and remain stationary in order to be able to utilize the technology or experience the new media object. If you’ve ever watched someone working at a computer or watching a television show, you’ll understand what I mean when I’m referring to the audience as captive.

When I was in grade 12, I began to notice a habit many of my peers had when sitting at a desk: they would bounce a leg up and down in quick succession. Seemingly unaware of this habit, each would continue to focus on their reading while their legs hammered away under the table. I always had a habit for trying to explain what I saw and while I have no research to support my hypothesis, my theory was that this stemmed from a need for movement due to extensive exposure to moving visual media like movies and video games.

How I came to this conclusion was based on my own excessive television habits. As a child, I would watch about 40-60 hours of television during a given week (documented in grade six through a two week project). I couldn’t sit still for more than a few minutes to practice piano, eat dinner, or read, even books that I enjoyed reading. If I was moving, I could do all of these things. However, when a television show or movie was on, I had no issue sitting completely still for hours at a time. I was held captive by the movements on the screen, but it was tracking those movements than enabled me to sit still. While the rest of my body was unmoving, my eyes were completely engaged and active. They were constantly moving to follow a character or read text on the screen. The movement of my eyes provided my brain with a sense of physical movement. My eyes were interacting with the moving images while I appeared to be otherwise frozen in place.

That being said, it was not true interaction in the real sense of the word. My eyes could not have any effect on the outcome of the stories I watched. A lot of new media would not be considered interactive by that sense, yet we don’t hesitate to stereotype all new media as interactive. Interactive became a catch all for new media on the basis of a supposedly new ability of the audience to affect change within a media object, but Manovich made a strong case for interactivity existing prior to new media and also that some new media simply is not capable of being truly interactive.

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2014 in Readings, Virtual Worlds

 

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Smart Mobs: Humanity vs Technology

I struggled with how to divide the topic of technology development since Lev Manovich covers it fairly extensively in The Language of New Media as does Howard Rheingold in Smart Mobs. However, their approaches are very different. In the end, I decided to split the topic of historical development as it relates to human and digital technology interaction into two parts. This first entry will address the interesting dichotomy raised in Smart Mobs: which group adapts to the other. Part two will explore the interpretation of controller and audience in HCIs, human computer interfaces.

Howard Rheingold extensively considered the development of interactive, engaging, mobile technology and the applications of these developing technologies in the day-to-day lifestyle of society. In the process of conducting his interviews, I noticed a striking division of views for the future of technology. On one side of the discussion, the goal was to develop computer heuristics sophisticated enough to anticipate a user’s needs before they asked for assistance. On the other side was the idea that humans should be augmented by and adapted to technology while still remaining in charge of the decisions at all times. Currently, I feel society is currently straddling both camps of thought in this debate, but it could only take one major technological development to tip the scale to societal preference of one over the other.

There are many examples in daily life that represent the computer-driven decision model. Everything from asking your iPhone’s artificial intelligence program for nearby restaurant suggestions to Google Ad Network’s consumer profiling software determining which products are most prominently displayed while you browse the web. We are constantly receiving recommendations and suggestions based on our habits as interpreted by computer programs. I can speak from experience that my start in endurance races was based solely on a Google advertisement based off my recent searches for healthy lifestyle tips and Walt Disney World.

Since these suggestions often mesh closely with our recent activities, we may feel that they are being helpful. The idea of having something know what we need before we know it and having that object or piece of information on hand in advance is appealing to our need for efficiency. But at what point does it cross from anticipatory into directive? We currently have the option to ignore target advertising online and to choose different restaurants than Siri suggests to us. What if, though, in the future where technology is a part of our bodies, we lose sight of what part is making the decisions, the brain or the programming? If that’s already happening when the body and technology are still separate, it’s not unreasonable to think we won’t become more reliant on the artificial intelligences in our lives to guide our actions.

Before GPS in cell phones was a commonplace technology, my cousin was using a print out of Googlemaps to find his way through the backroads of Ontario’s farmland. Driving my uncle’s van, he followed the instructions faithfully, even when they led him down a little-used dirt path that quickly narrowed the further down he went. He continued to follow the road, trusting in the printout of a program’s instructions to guide him correctly. It wasn’t until he had gone so far down the path that the brambles and low-hanging branches had done over $5000 worth of damage to the sides and undercarriage of the van that he stopped to reconsider his chosen direction.

With the other side of the coin, though, we can see that the user is still the driver in the decision process. Rheingold uses the example of his interview with society’s first, self-styled, cyborg. The key point that he presented was the idea that computers should be secondary to us; the goal should be to use technology to increase the data available to the user but the decision should solely remain in the hands of the user. Although the concern was raised that incorporating technological devices into our physical body appears to make us equally reliant on technology, Rheingold points out that by controlling what is accessed and how, cybernetic enchancements are kept in check by the need to a human to continue beyond the information gathering stage; the human user remains the gatekeeper of all actions taken.

I think on the surface, many technology users would suggest that they want an anticipatory relationship with their technology. Who wouldn’t want a coffee maker than knows exactly when and how you like your coffee? However, the reality of such power resting in the realm of programs not only opens us up to manipulation as a society, from hackers to government to corporations, but part of the benefit of being human is the freedom to make our own decisions, good and bad. Even if we could program an artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to react with our morals and ethical code, it would be nearly impossible to program human emotions into an equation. Humanity is a variable and in some cases we need the diversity that our humanity brings to the discussion in order to expand the scope of it.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2014 in Readings

 

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