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Making a Face: Assessing Avatar Creation Tools

Page history last edited by Alan Liu 2 years, 2 months ago

Making a Face: Assessing Avatar Creation Tools

Amanda Phillips


(read the original project proposal here)




The Making a Face project offers some techniques and theoretical framing to assess and theorize avatar facial creation systems . These were developed and tested on Bethesda Softworks' Fallout 3 avatar creation system on the Xbox 360, chosen because of the versatility and complexity of the game's facial creation tools, as well as its narrative situation in a post-apocalyptic United States. This latter feature resulted in a racial classification system which, unlike other video games situated in fantasy or science fiction universes, pulls directly from contemporary US racial identities.


The Context


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:



The Theory


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:



Blas pulls from Deleuze & Guattari's essay "Year Zero: Faciality" from A Thousand Plateaus, an essay in which the face is theorized as a politics and as a site of subjugation to regimes of signification and subjectivity. Facial expressions are forced into specific regimes of signification, and the body itself becomes facialized and subject to the same assemblages of power - taming nature in favor of the order of civilization. Blas echoes the call toward the end of the essay, which encourages us to break free of faciality, to know faces in order to dismantle and flee from them (188).


In a seemingly opposing gesture, Giorgio Agamben suggests not to dismantle and flee the face at all, but to become it. For Agamben, the face is pure communicability, “the only location of community, the only possible city” (91). It is not, however, reducible to the visage, nor is the visage necessarily a face; the face is the point at which language and character merge with the visage and become a point of exposure and interface with the world, a particular human relation to the image. Recognizing, owning, and exposing one’s own appearance are central to facial politics, and appearance is one of the most contested sites on the contemporary political battleground, a place controlled by the media, politicians, and bureaucrats to keep humans separate from the communicative potentials of their own appearance. Retaking one's face is about reclaiming the gesture, regaining access to pure communicability and community.


But it is in Gloria Anzaldúa's introduction to Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras that the themes of identity, oppression, liberty, and power as channeled by and through the face become articulated in a way most useful to this project. Her call to reappropriate the face comes not from the perspective of an abstract human subject as in the texts of Levinas, Agamben, and Deleuze and Guattari, but from the particular situation of a Chicana woman who must endure and adapt to the expectations and assumptions of white society in order to survive. “Since white Anglo-Americans’ racist ideology cannot take in our faces,” she writes, “it, too, covers them up, ‘blanks’ them out of its reality. To become less vulnerable to all these oppressors, we have had to ‘change’ faces...” (xv). Anzaldúa speaks of the masks forced on women of color by a social regime that refuses to recognize the complexity of their identities, one that forces faces into the boxes of “mujer, macho, working class, Chicana” (xv). The woman of color cannot, as Levinas might propose, communicate in equal measure with the faces that look upon her; she becomes overwritten, tattooed, masked by her interlocutor. This process mirrors the grim provocation that Gayatri Spivak draws out in “Can the Subaltern Speak?” -- any attempt at being a face is subsumed by hegemony’s desire to control its meaning.


For Anzaldúa, there is power not merely in casting off these masks, but in negotiating the space between a face and its masks - a space that she calls the “interface,” after the layer of cloth used in sewing to reinforce stitching and the structure of garments. These spaces, the very sites of contact between oppression and the self, nevertheless provide structure enough to break free. As with the previous philosophers, Anzaldúa proposes a way to break free of power that would control one's own communicability and community, but Anzaldúa encourages us not to flee the face or to become the face, but to make a face:


haciendo caras has the added connotation of making gestos subversivos, political subversive gestures, the piercing look that questions or challenges, the look that says, "Don't walk all over me," the one that says, "Get out of my face." (xv)


It is with this challenge to make faces in mind that the project will proceed.


The Methods


Even when tech systems are designed with efficiency and hardware limitations in mind, they retain the traces of cultural assumptions and hierarchies.

Most avatar creation tools are bundled in proprietary software whose source code is not available, and whose designers may be bound by non-disclosure agreements or unaware of the implications of some of their choices. Direct manipulation of these systems can yield patterns, limitations, and unexpected errors that can point toward their deeper cultural implications.


Deformance: Taking its name from literary criticism, this technique attempts to tease out the limits of a given system and determine if limits differ by gender or race.



Features minimized     Sliders minimized     Sliders in middle               Sliders maximized               Features maximized


Gender Flex Test: Does a system support non-traditional gender expression? Are “female” avatars restricted to “feminine” facial traits? Is makeup or facial hair optional or restricted to certain avatars?



                          "Feminine" Male                                                  "Masculine" Female


Compositing: Combining images captured from avatar systems can help reveal slider settings, facial similarities, and other trends that may not be readily apparent.

Face Composites:



                    "Average" Asian Male                                             "Average" Asian Female


Slider Composites:



          African-American                                   Asian                                             Caucasian                                   Hispanic


Whites-only Test: Does a system offer skin tones, facial features, and/or hair textures that are conducive to creating faces that may be read as other than white? Are they labeled as such?




                              African-American Female Preset 3                                                                      Hispanic Male Preset 9


The Results


Complications: Fallout 3's avatar creation system is complicated and designed to keep gamers from making mistakes or extreme deformances like the experiments outlined above. Some of the sliders are linked to each other, and move as a unit when one of them is altered. This made the deformances in particular difficult and time-consuming to accomplish. Fallout 3 also provided 10 "preset" faces for each gender and race, offering yet another vector to analys.


Successes: The avatar experiments successfully rooted out some less-obvious features of the system, such as the fact that the facial meshes are in fact different for each race and gender of avatar. This becomes obvious with the deformations, which reveal that the extremes of the sliders are not the same for each facial type:



                                  Caucasian Male, Features maximized                                                                                Asian Male, Features maximized


Failures: Because of the difference in facial meshes, the slider bar compositing technique was less useful in determining anything about facial features in the Fallout 3 presets.


The Future


The Body: A next logical step is to test sliders on the level of the body. There are some systems that enable both, although many allow the gamer to customize a face but not the body, or the body is altered by in-game activity like eating, leveling up certain skills, or taking damage.


Non-Slider Systems: These methods are useful for looking at slider bar systems in particular, but there are other avatar creation interfaces that do not utilize a slider. Some of these might have simple charts or lineups to choose from, though others offer other geometrical interfaces like Saint's Row The Third's body triangle: 



Link to original image: http://www.gamersyde.com/pop_images_saints_row_the_third-17527-11.html 


Other Avatar Experiments: The original proposal for this project suggested replicating specific faces, such as my own, as a way to test the system's ability to cope with a random face. An interesting and fun version of this might be to mimic celebrity faces - a pasttime of the avatar customization community that can be observed on the Mass Effect 2 Faces Database and elsewhere.


PC Modding: When avatar systems are insufficient in providing the quality or flexibility that gamers desire, they modify and add components to the software in order to bring their avatar closer to expectations. Some of the female Commander Shepard avatars in the "Many Faces of Femshep" video above are the result of modifications to hairstyle, skin textures, and facial meshes. Playing on a PC as opposed to a console like the Xbox offers gamers and researchers more flexibility and control over the software - though this is also quite a more expensive proposition in terms of obtaining necessary hardware, technical skill, and software. Nevertheless, the moddability of any avatar system should be taken into account.

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