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California Youth and Radio Brigade

April 21, 2010

Meet Fox Harrell, professor and director of the Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab/Studio at Georgia Tech.
Not only does he have fantastic hair, he’s also very interested in what video game avatars are doing to our children. His journey began when his frustration with the limited avatar options available to him became too much to bear. “In terms of software, the systems for creating identities have never seemed adequate for my self-expression.” His attempts to make African-inspired characters would result in less intelligent avatars, if he wanted to be “elegant and clean-lined” he could only use a female avatar, all problems we’ve encountered before in class discussions. These sorts of games do not allow for cyborgs, you’re either one thing or another. Though Harrell acknowledges that this is just a part of game design, he can’t help his frustration that ability is so closely tied to appearance. He also addresses the idea that even were we able to create a perfect avatar, it’s not a guarantee that other players are going to react to the avatar the way we’d like them to. He extrapolates this problem to avatars used in social networks and such.

Harrell’s work makes me think of Harraway and her cyborgs. “His research and software development are all about creating new opportunities for fluid, nuanced narratives, identities, and social categories to take shape–and shift shape–online.” He is embracing the chimerical potential of the Internet. One project has to do with an avatar that changes based on emotional tone.  Another, in beta as a Facebook app, allows friends to describe a user as different animals eventually resulting in a hybrid animal icon for the person to use.

In the end, I design these technologies for two reasons: (1) for users to represent identities in ways that are empowering and have the potential to increase their self-efficacy and agency in the real world, and (2) for artists to be able to use technologies to express, criticize, and change the ways that identities are used to oppress, discriminate, and otherwise disempower.

Harrell believes that young people have the capacity to both use existing technology creatively and to create technology themselves, outside of the existing, limiting framework. In order to achieve this, he preaches education, not just in computer sciences, but also in critical thinking about data structures and processes.

There it is again. Lacy’s favorite thing. Educate them young. And here’s one person who has already started the process. The group he works with, Youth Radio-Youth Media International, appears to have quite the diverse representation too, hitting one of our other touchstones. Some screencaps from their front page:

I’m sure there are other programs like this one, but I think this is the sort of thing we need to see more of if we want more girls developing an interest in computers.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. greenstring permalink
    April 23, 2010 7:08 am

    His name is Fox and he does avatar research? Amazing. Cy Swin, I thought you were tired of game design research? Looks like you found some interesting and exciting stuff.

    The undersea/emotional tone project is cool as is the FB app. And of course, I’m game for the Youth Radio. (He’s a good role model, if only he was a woman. Ha)

    • Mary permalink
      April 23, 2010 5:12 pm

      I already said this to you, but I thought I’d say it again here. I just thought his ideas would be really helpful if applied to the problem of no girls in CS.

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