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Making a Face: A Catalogue of Avatar Creation Systems Proposal (redirected from Making a Face: A Catalogue of Avatar Creation Systems)

Page history last edited by Amanda Phillips 10 years, 5 months ago

Making a Face: A Catalogue of Avatar Creation Systems

Amanda Phillips




Making a Face will catalogue the expressive potentials of customizable avatar systems in mainstream video game and virtual world software. Focusing on the face will both limit the labor required for avatar creation in this prototype stage, and also allows the project to engage with recent philosophical, theoretical, and technical work on faciality, facial recognition, facial animation, and more.


Cultural Contexts


Part of the fantasy that the video game industry sells to its consumers is the ability to become another person. Unlike film or television, which normally place the spectator in a position external to the hero, one of the main pleasures of gaming is assuming the role of the hero herself. When the option to customize is available, many gamers take great pains to create their avatars in a specific image, and their individuality is celebrated in fan communities:




Theoretical Contexts


Theories of the face and facial communication range widely across the disciplines and date back to the earliest philosophers.


More recently, the face is treated with varying degrees of celebration and suspicion by theorists such as Levinas, Deleuze & Guattari, and Agamben. Queer new media artist Zach Blas has recently taken up the face as a site of queer resistance:




As a technical problem, generating and animating faces that are both realistic and emotionally resonant is one of the most urgent puzzles of robotics and computer graphics alike. Roboticist Masahiro Mori proposed the theory of the uncanny valley in 1970 to express the difficulty of solving this problem:



But the technical problems have been thoroughly cultural from the beginning: in determining borders between the human and non-human, Alan Turing, in formulating his famous test, first proposed a game that would test the gender of a person on the other side of the screen. This link between technology, gender, and human perception can still be seen today in more recent research which suggests that people perceive digital avatars of ambiguous gender to be less trustworthy than others.


Project Proposal


I propose to document several snapshots of as many avatar creation tools as is reasonable for this prototype, capturing the faces that are created at the most extreme ends of the slider scales (maximum and minimum values) and at their middles in order to first determine what kind of norming work these facial creation systems do.  


Here are some early examples created with Second Life:



The next face I will capture will be an attempt at recreating my own face, as a random face creation challenge for the system.



And finally (and most problematically), I will attempt to create "masculine" and "feminine" faces using the female and male avatar face creation systems, respectively. This task, while making use of problematic and culturally specific facial markers of gender, will serve as a test of gender flexibility of the avatar system.



This project also seeks to interrogate the racial flexibility of these systems. Just as avatars can instill a sense of the human and gendered uncanny, so too do users complain of the inability to create non-white avatars that appear more convincing than black- or brownface. Many gamers regard the ability to create an avatar in their own image as a privilege


One limitation this project has is the tendency of a catalogue of faces to invoke racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, imperialist, and other regressive projects that categorize human faces for the purposes of identifying and controlling populations. For example, the Nazis produced extensive documentation of facial characteristics organized according to a pseudo-scientific hierarchy of races to aid a genocidal project of racial purity. More recently, facial recognition technology is used extensively by law enforcement to police public spaces.


A catalogue of this type must respond to these histories and theorize the creation and display of faces appropriately in order to avoid contributing to these traditions.

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