Why we need more “dangerous” embodiments

While comparing the differences in bodily motions of the white plantation owner and the black slave, I wasn’t sure if I was bringing my own set of expectations or if the difference in movement was intended in the game. The white plantation owner was clearly taller than the black slave, but I wasn’t able to figure out if the white plantation owner walked more “proudly” with his head held high than the black slave, who at first glance, seemed to keep her head slightly lower. It seemed like I had brought in my own set of expectations about the plantation owner and the black slave which drastically shaped my playing experience.

This brings me to two points: the importance of process-based projects and the need for more embodiments despite the “dangerous” nature. If the project was process-based and had a narrative of what was based on historical evidence and what was interpreted when designing the characters, I would be able to better distinguish what my own expectations were and adjust accordingly to perceptions that are more historically authentic. This is especially important for potential players of the game who might have very skewed ideas and biases of what a black slave or white plantation owner looked like. Grounding these embodiments with historically accurate accounts can be very dangerous, but we should not let the “dangerous” nature of these embodiments turn us away from making them. It is imperative that we expose people’s own expectations, just as it did with me, and make them confront and question these perceptions. As a result, people may have more well-informed thoughts and perspectives on controversial histories like slavery and get a more accurate depiction of what actually happened during that time.

Considering Digital Embodiment

Endeavoring to digitally recreate someone definitely has its challenges, which I had a very brief experience with. Very quickly I became conscious of what information I was drawing from, like the life experience of my pauper and the assumptions I would make about how they would affect my body. For example, how to you reflect the amount of physical work someone did while at the same time emphasizing the lack of nutrition?

While I found the experience of trying to make those decisions daunting and very weird, I do understand the importance of such representation. When exploring different models in class, playing the in the same environment with different avatars, I immediately noticed that I moved around the space differently. Now, this wore off pretty quickly when I noticed there was little procedural difference in that particular model, but future work could easily engage that same idea again.

Digital Embodiments Project

I think that digital embodiments like avatars can be very useful in combating stereotypes and promoting empathy, but only if they are researched and implemented in a methodical and careful manner. For example, if the differences in an avatar are superficial and don’t impact gameplay (however interactive that gameplay might be), then they won’t exactly do much of anything for the player. A good example of this is shown in the video game The Sims, where in the semi-realistic world the game creates, you could be a 7 foot tall blue person and no one would bat an eye. I think that technically the Digital Embodiments projects fall into this category, if only because the project is unfinished. If the project is finished with, say, NPC interactions and in-game objectives (and collision detection), I think the game could provide interested parties a chance to step in the shoes of different individuals in the conflict. Otherwise, it’s really just an exercise in model making,

Digital Embodiment and Historical Authenticity

While reading the Favro and Yee and Bailenson articles, and listening to the lecture in class on Wednesday, I was intrigued by the variety in the quality of each project’s model, reflecting both the size and budget of the project as well as the end goal of the project. A project, for example like the Roman Forum prototype that Favro uses in her article, requires more modeling detail than a less academically oriented project, like a video game, might when digitally recreating that sight. However, the inverse would likely be the case when discussing the detail required in modeling people. In the Yee and Bailenson article, the findings of the profound immediate effects on participants of the study highlighted in this article signal the importance and significance of historical accuracy, or at least authenticity in 3D modeling and digital embodiment.

In class on Wednesday, we tried to model the paupers we had studied to create Twine stories in MakeHuman. Trying to accomplish this task in a historically authentic manner proved much more difficult than I had expected. This exercise made me realize the level of research, planning, and thought that would need to go into a digital embodiment project in order to create historically authentic models.



Favro, Diane. “Se non èvero, èben trovato (If Not True, It is Well Conceived): Digital Immersive Reconstructions of Historical Environments.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 71, no.3, (September 2012): 273-277.http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/jsah.2012.71.3.273

Yee, Nick and Jeremy Bailenson. “Walk A Mile in Digital Shoes: The Impact of Embodied Perspective -Taking on The Reduction of Negative Stereotyping in Immersive Virtual Environments.” Stanford University, n.d.

Digital Embodiment: Character and Environment

The Dangerous Embodiments project aims to give players different first-person perspectives of the experiences of people in Soweto and Lakeport. It attempts to embody this history digitally by allowing users to play as different characters such as a female slave and a male plantation master, in the case of Lakeport.

At first, I definitely noticed the physical characteristics of the avatar as which I am playing. The female slave at Lakeport seems more hunched over and timid, while the male plantation master is more burly and comes off as a more powerful character. However, as I progressed through the simulation I found that I paid less and less attention to the character as which I was playing until, eventually, I was essentially tuning it out and only paying attention to the environment around me. Because of this, I don’t feel I was able to gain as much of a sense of empathy as this project has potential to offer.

This point about the environment is key here. I feel that if these projects and included more environmental changes depending on which character you select, a much more immersive sense of embodiment would ensue. For example, not allowing the slave to enter the house, or certain parts of the house, that the master might help emphasize the historical situations and restrictions that came with each of the characters, better putting you into their experience. This could be done with social interactions with other non player characters added to the simulation as well.

Digital Embodiment

Digital embodiment can provide a means to promote empathy toward people in the past, but it can also be problematic. When trying to create my own character, it definitely made me think of who I was trying to represent, how I was engaging with stereotypes, and my own personal biases and interpretations. In that way, it may have helped me build some more knowledge of my own interactions with this historical figure. However, I also found it difficult in how historically inaccurate it feels to try to represent someone in the past while at the same time the player may not question how I chose to present this person.

While I find there can be issues in how characters are chosen to be represented and also in the ways in which people view those characters once they are out in the digital world, I feel it is more effective and engaging to have a character in a virtual world than to feel as though you are simply yourself walking through a ghost town. The “Dangerous Embodiments” virtual world made it apparent how important the interactions between virtual people are as well, and how coded all these interactions are. I think that these new technologies can have interesting implications in promoting empathy between different people, however as many of these embodiments deal with very sensitive material, people must be very careful in how they choose to represent the characters.

Digital Embodiments

Attempting to recreate the experience of individuals can be very difficult. For example, Dangerous Embodiments, an attempt at capturing experiences of different individuals accomplished very little. As I wandered through the virtual world, I kept expecting for something to be different as I changed my avatar, yet nothing did. It almost felt as though I was trying to force myself to feel a certain way when choosing different avatars. It felt as though I was trying to force myself to get into the mentality of being my chosen avatar.

As we played around with MakeHuman I recognized how difficult it is to create characters that accurately embody the mission of a game. The level of detail to which I could configure the players infringed upon my ability to accurately represent the players to the extent I would like. As a creator, it is important that the game communicates what was intended to be communicated, which is something that I felt Dangerous Embodiments lacks.

Imperfect Digital Embodiment

The MakeHuman creation platform is certainly a fantastic way for a low-budget team to create models that share traits with their subjects, but MakeHuman has its shortcomings. By being a jack-of-all-trades, MakeHuman is clearly a master of none. For instance, while the three race sliders for Caucasian, African, and Asian represent a strong majority of the world’s population, the system doesn’t make it very easy to model other people. MakeHuman models also have a tendency to start looking inhuman pretty quickly. Some slider settings just do not mix well.

Nevertheless, the larger question might be this: how perfect can a digital model ever be? Current technology does allow for a great deal of photo-realism, but that’s at the cutting edge. Moreover, trying to model subjects that have limited or non-existent representation in photographs or artwork makes the job hard. Even if these media exist, how much can we believe what they portray. No looks good in a mugshot, and everyone looks fantastic under studio lighting.

Perhaps it’s more important that the model evoke the proper feeling. The digital embodiment probably shouldn’t be the focus, rather it should be good enough that it doesn’t distract the player. The model should get out of the way to let the player experience the game. That doesn’t mean the player model is unimportant. The character may well be crucial, but it shouldn’t need to undergo closeup scrutiny.

Digital Embodiment in Historical Representations: Complications and Ethical Issues

The creation of virtual bodies for a historical recreation is a difficult process. Every aspect of the design of the figure must be intentional; no single feature or component of the body can be represented in a certain way without interpretive or historical reasoning. This process is further complicated when one attempts to create a digital embodiment of a historical figure. In many cases, the creator may have no evidence of what the person being represented actually looked like, and must carefully exercise historical imagination to represent the body in a respectful and ethical manner. I grappled with some of these issue when I attempted to create a virtual representation of James Moore, the first master of the Gressenhall House of Industry. I found myself questioning every minute detail I changed; why did I make that choice? Can I justify that? What does it mean to represent him this way?

Issues also arise in how the player is meant to experience the character. In a first person view, the player is immersed in the body and sees through the characters eyes. In a third person view, they can see the body itself at all times, and are therefore constantly aware of it, but they do not see through it. It is also important to intentionally design an environment that reacts to and interacts with the character. If the body is incidental to the space in which it moves, there is not meaningful interaction between the space and character.

Bodies and Digital Embodiment

While working on the MakeHuman platform, I engaged with the pauper I had been researching in a new way. Being responsible for her body meant thinking about her recent pregnancy in physical terms. I had to negotiate between considering the extra weight she might have gained from pregnancy and the lack of nutrition in an 18th century pauper’s diet. Where in her body would each of these manifest? How would her labor tasks from before her pregnancy have affected her musculature? I realized I didn’t know and would have had to circle back to do new research.

Even though I couldn’t shape her appearance exactly as I wanted, I was able to engage in some substantive process-based questions during my MakeHuman session. After an avatar (a product) is built, though, those process-based experiences can disappear for the user, as the experience playing Dangerous Embodiments taught me. However, allowing a user to create an avatar without any historical information seems equally, if not more, at odds with process of building empathy in a historically authentic way.