Friday, February 19, 2010

A Throwaway Piece of Code

Mark Marino launched the first full day of the Digital Media and Learning Conference with a "Symposium on Virtual Worlds at the Intersection of Race, Class and Possibility." As chair, Marino explained some of the possible connections between more established fields like Cultural Studies and Critical Race Studies to newer work on Critical Code Studies. Marino's own dissertation on chatbots and other AI systems explored how race, class, and gender might be represented in the unit operations of online texts.

Fox Harrell opened his discussion about "representing ourselves computationally" with an overview of his interests in computer games, social networking, and other "educational and cultural systems" and encouraged the audience to think about "affordances that stigmatize." Harrel framed his argument with Erving Goffman’s Stigma: notes on the management of spoiled identity to draw attention to Goffman's ideas about "tribal stigma" of race, nation, and religion." Harrell's Advanced Identity Representation (AIR) Project in the ICE Lab at Georgia Tech, which is also part of the Identity Share Project, emphasizes the importance of "impromptu not formed communities" in an initiative shaped by an interest in "projected identity" and what George Lakoff has characterized as the imaginative extensions of "prototype effects" in which representatives, stereotypes, ideals, and salient examples play out in interactive media, including popular games. Harrell described how games like The Elder Scrolls assign numerical values to particular racially based characteristics, which in the game's algorithms translate into point categories for intelligence or running and jumping abilities. He marveled at how in Neverwinter Nights "bloodcolor" was "built into infrastructure of the game," much as the "one drop rule" shaped American racial public. He also argued that whether a computer user was "playing in the suburbs" or "rocking out" in urban spaces, racial categories appear in everything from commerce to aesthetic performance. As he closed he cited the work of W.E.B. Du Bois about "double consciousness" and the ideological consequences of "identity and its shadow," as computer users of color are aware both of their self-identities and how they are perceived in a world coded as white.

Sneha Harrell followed by presenting some of her extensive research about how young at-risk students in her program are engaging with Teen Second Life to learn mathematical and computational skills that might be valuable to them academically. Unfortunately, the default bodies of these programs discourage non-white students from participating, because they may feel characters are overly feminized or may not represent the qualities of being "solid" that they desire. She showed information from journal entires, video discussions, interviews, and many other sources to argue that the problem with how the code of these systems are configured is "not just about skin tone and hair."

Next up was Lisa Nakamura, one of my major influences in thinking about "cybertypes," which in my own research for the Virtualpolitik book involved digital representations of Iraqi citizens in government funded military videogames, virtual reality simulations, and official public diplomacy websites. Nakamura started her talk by praising "Henry Jenkins for being a mensch" by including viewpoints that were critical of his participatory culture thesis. As she put it "race, class, gender" are often in the position of "coming late" to discussions about technology so that forms of racial classification and "identity tourism" in many-to-many digital experiences might be likely to be overlooked. seizing the opportunity for struggle. In her thesis about "unfree labor" and "working at playing with race in digital games," she argued that race is often treated as a "throwaway piece of code" that is "like a texture for a wall" rather than a subject for inquiry about interfaces, affordances, and constraints. She noted that Asians are frequently overcounted as digital model minorities and enter into interactions online in the position of those who are "poor but not excluded." She showed a striking set of images of "gold farmer body spam" in an ad aimed at Horde World of Warcraft players for that is actually made of the bodies of spent avatars who represent Chinese worker/players who are excluded from the social space. For Nakamura it is important to analyze how virtual worlds function "as states that exclude certain bodies." (For more on race in World of Warcraft, check out my essay on just war theory in the game in Pacific Coast Philology from my PAMLA address last year.)

Finally, Beth Coleman appeared via Skype with a reminder that this kind of racial role-playing has a long history in popular culture that includes the book Black Like Me and the recent movie Avatar. In understanding how "we are using avatars of color," Coleman foregrounded two principles: 1) Virtual experiences are real and 2) Players bring different relationships of race to online interactions. She took issue with what she called the "Protean argument" that a computer user could walk in another person's shoes and understand the way that race is coded, although she did argue that it could work in certain situations for eliciting humor, as it did for Eddie Murphy in the classic Saturday Night Live sketch in which he rides a bus in the guise of a white person on bus and is told that it is free to get on before being handed a pot of gold.

During discussion, several of the panelists said that they didn't want to simply come off as prohibiting the "vision or desire for the Protean," but they did want to encourage attention to "transitions, comings, and categories" that might go uninterrogated in the process. Since many on the panel had also presented at the DAC conference, there were also references to the work troubling the notions of species and gender with relation to structures of exclusion by Micha Cárdenas.

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Anonymous Fox Harrell said...

Thank you for your detailed write up Liz!

The reference to Lakoff's work on cognitive categorization arises from my observation that identity categories are often reified in software -- and those that are implemented are what Lakoff would dismiss as "folk theories." The end effect is that these are often stigmatizing. The AIR Project is a 5 year NSF CAREER Grant funded endeavor that I have initiated to develop new identity models, a toolkit for empowering and critical identity representations across platforms (social networking profiles, games, interactive narratives, etc.), and applications to demonstrate the toolkit's possibilities. The systems references were pilot work for the AIR project -- e.g. games that implement prototype effects, double-consciousness, or other identity-based phenomena in expressive ways.

A correction: IdentityShare was an M.S. student's project at Georgia Tech. I co-advised the student (Daniel Upton) with my colleague Carl DiSalvo. IdentityShare is based on theory of computational identity that I developed in pilot work for the AIR Project. So, IdentityShare was a student work based on AIR Project ideas, not the other way around.

9:13 PM  

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