Phantasmal Media

Last month I went to one of the 5 College Digital Humanities lectures as Amherst College. The speaker was Prof D Fox Harrell. His research is interested in the interactions between the cultural and computational ends of media, particularly in video games, and the potential for overlap between the humanities and the “hard sciences.”

The talk can be found online here.

The first part of the talk addresses issues of identity online, and how it is imagined to be a space where you kind of start over fresh; all anyone knows about you is your username and avatar. This becomes kind of complicated, however, when someone actively wants to bring their cultural identity online with them, and when people carry their biases with them. An example of this that Harrell doesn’t mention might be XBox Live clans like the Puerto Reekan Killaz that Kishonna Gray talks about in her piece “Collective Organizing, Individual Resistance, or Asshole Griefers? An Ethnographic Analysis of Women of Color on XBox Live,” who band together based on their identities as queer women of color who are often attacked by racist gamers in matches and in forums based on linguistic profiling.

He goes on to talk about how data structures and algorithms play into these issues of identity, sometimes in ways you may not expect or be totally aware of as in recommending systems like Amazon, or as in Second Life, a game where someone had rewrite a new reflecting model because the original was not meant for darker skin tones. There’s also a discussion of characters in fantasy games that are from an imaginary race but that share physical traits with a real world person of color, and how on the back end (in the games code) these characters are given traits and skills that line up with longstanding white patriarchal stereotypes, as in having more speed and strength but less intelligence. He emphasizes how this happens at the coding level, so issues of the humanities and of computational science really influence each other with systems like these.

Professor Harrell’s work in this area aims to explore this relationship through looking at phantasms, the combination of images and the cultural resonance of those images, in new media. One way that he does this is through system building, as with the Chimeria engine, which traces how one moves from one category to another, as with powers in games (from sage to knight and back) or in music preference (punk to jazz and back). The game scenario he offers that uses this engine is of someone trying to enter the castle of a clan they do not belong to by convincing the guard that they are enough like them. By changing what the two categories mean and how the guard responds, this system offers a way to really look at how stereotyping works cognitively, and can be instrumental in teaching against it.

When you talk about making games more diverse, you usually get backlash from people who are resistant to change, who say that having healthy portrayals of different kinds of characters doesn’t really matter because they’re “just games” or something of that nature. Professor Harrell’s research and analysis proves that this simply isn’t true. Every part of media is important because it shapes our culture and is reflective of it, allowing us a unique space to critique and better ourselves. I think this ties in well to one of the driving questions of our class: how can these emerging technologies and platforms impact the humanities. This lecture proves that hard science and the humanities go hand in hand in cultural analysis of new systems and technologies.


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