Making Avatars That Aren't White Dudes Is Hard

Since the majority of video game players in the West are white, when they play a role-playing game, it's not hard to have their character looking and dressing like them. But what if you're not white?

Fox Harrel (above), an artist, computer scientist and avid gamer, has written of the problems he's run into in video game RPGs when trying to create a character that, well, looks like he does.

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.

Harrel, a professor at Georgia Tech, is working through this by coming up with Loss, Undersea, a program that's aiming to generate an avatar for a player based not on arbitrary, pre-determined features, but by reflecting their mood and personality.

There's plenty more interesting stuff in the same vein over on Boing-Boing, so head over to check out the full thing.

Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments from Prof. Fox Harrell [Boing Boing]


    Avatars represent you, that does not mean it is you.

    People design their avatars to look like them? I always make something interesting and go with it. I always thought the point was to make an interesting character and pretend to be them not insert yourself into as many different places as possible...

      I always make mine a girl so i ahve soemthing pretty to look at :P

    I find I always get stuck on my facial hair. I have stuble, sideburns and a goatee. Almost every character customization system has the parts to make me but none of them let me layer the three levels of facial hair together at the same time.
    I really wish they'd break it down into stuble, left sideburn, right sideburn, chin and upper-lip with varing sizes and shapes for each. That'd let me mix and match pretty much all the basic facial hair styles.

      Sounds like you should play Fallout 3.

    "Fox Harrel (above), an artist, computer scientist and avid gamer, has written of the problems he’s run into in video game RPGs when trying to create a character that, well, looks like he does."

    What. Ginger?

    i like making mine look really silly like short,fat,small head,long nose,long jaw,little eyes.. pretty much any atribute turned to max or min lol am i the only one?

    This guy just seems like a whiner, limited appearance choices occur when you choose a non-conformist hairstyle such as the dreadlocks, this guy should get a hair cut and stop complaining. Though I thought he was gonna play the race card once he brought up Redguards but their lack of intelligence would most likely be due to their higher constitution and being quickfooted, plus the poison resistance is a bonus.

    Just like Havok and shared game engines, there will be a market for those who create exceptional character creation software.

    Tell the man to go play The Sims or any other Bioware title.

    Thank you all for your thoughts. I had nothing to do with this title or it's claim that my goal is to make avatars that look like I do.

    Please read my own article that I authored to clear things up.

    Also, please look at the original boingboing interview to put the excerpt here in context.

    Part of the problem is that Kotaku changed an interview article about “Chimerical Avatars and Other Identity Experiments by Professor Fox Harrell" into their own argument which they titled “Making Avatars That Aren't White Dudes is Hard.” The intro goes a bit further, implying that my goal is only to produce avatars the look like me! Even more unfortunately, my own photo was attached to that sensationalistic title.

    Actually making any avatar look like oneself can be an issue at times. When I started SECOND LIFE, I posed while a friend created a likeness of me in Elsie Broek (see In THERE it was impossible to get any real likeness (see but in TWINITY you can upload photos of your face and it does resemble one (see but I found that as much as I tried, I couldn't make my avatar smile.

    Then again not all my AVs are about representing my real self. I also create web comics using Second Life and the AVs become actors and characters, rather than myself. Even so, certain things are easier to do than others. Perhaps the difficulty in creating an avatar that looks like something other than a Caucasian reflects the the dominant culture of the people who design these systems.

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