Now that my readership has appropriately flatlined, I am permitted to publish the second in a three-part series of journal entries about my quest to create the perfect avatar. In part I, we talked about caricature, and I obnoxiously examined what makes my own face distinctive. Now, we examine what, exactly, makes cartooning effective. Here’s a hint: HAIR.
Seeing in the Abstract
Let’s talk cartooning.
In his wonderful work of literary and visual criticism, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains (emphases his):
...I’m going to examine cartooning as a form of amplification through simplification.
When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping down an image to its essential “meaning,” an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.
How do cartooning, caricature, and avatars relate to videogames in a broader sense? The key, I think, is iconography. Take a look at Character Design for Mobile Devices, wherein realistic character design and artistry are pared down to their simplest and most fundamental pixels.
“How did you feel,” 1UP editor James Mielke asked Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano, “about seeing your elaborate illustrations transformed into such tiny sprites?”
Amano replied with an elegant description that could be applied to any type of icon. ”...Back then, ...my art couldn’t just go into the game without major adjustments,” he explained. “So I looked at the sprites as just a symbol of my art. Here’s an example: when you say ‘Mount Fuji’ and you make a motion like this”—here, Amano makes a peak sign with his fingers—“everybody knows what Mount Fuji looks like, so they get the mental image in their head. So I was in charge of making the master art piece that people would keep in their mind, and people would remember this art because of these symbols in the game.”
Avatars as Cartoons
I’m not sure where this Flash avatar software came from, but I remember it being pretty popular a few years ago. In spite of its consistent inability to produce a reliably accurate face, I like it. It is unequivocally cartoony.
Since the choices for eyes, hairstyles, and mouths are deliberately limited by the software itself, I felt like it was necessary to select the second-ugliest chin possible. Does that make any sense? What I mean is, I feel like the software forced my hand in choosing a horrific, truly gnarly chin, but the avatar itself is all the better for it.
In the aforementioned Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud conveys himself as a simple cartoon dude wearing eyeglasses. “We don’t just observe the cartoon,” he writes, “we become it!” In the next frame of his comic, he draws himself unabashedly photorealistically. “Would you have listened to me,” his hyper-real avatar wonders, “if I looked like this?”
The moment is startling. But in the very next frame, he concludes—drawn again as his former, cartoonish self, with a speech bubble blooming above his head—“I doubt it! You would have been far too aware of the messenger to fully receive the message!”
McCloud’s point is significant: a meaningful avatar is one that is instantly relatable, if only because its identity is willfully indistinct.
Facing Your Manga
Because my MySpace user photo made use of ‘MySpace angles,’ it was almost less disingenuous to switch to a Face Your Manga avatar (at the time, it was all the rage on Twitter and Flickr). An ex-boyfriend witnessed the MySpace Avatar Switch and felt compelled to message me. “Your manga avatar,” he wrote, “is absolutely creepy.”
Dave, I absolutely agree. The manga software creator allows just enough variability for me to find my almost-actual facial features and hilariously uninspiring hair-do. But—and this is a big but—the creator does not allow so much variability that I will be permitted to choose another feature out of vanity. This seems important.
Instead, I will choose beady brown eyes, framed by eyeglasses and wickedly arched brows. I will choose plain hair, a smallish mouth with zero upper lip, a beaky nose, and a face shape allowing for just as much chin as possible. Ultimately, the outcome is as cartoonish as could possibly make me recognizable, without being so cartoonish that my avatar becomes gruesome.
AbiStudio Portrait Maker
I’m sorry. There is absolutely nothing I can say about the AbiStudio Portrait Illustration Maker (AKA “the one from Livejournal”). This could be a picture of anybody.
Anyway, I’ve only edited this paragraph in because I wanted everyone to see the crow shitting in a straight line.
The Simpsons, or, WTF?
Not too great, huh?
How am I supposed to superimpose my identity onto a standard Simpsons avatar? How should I depict my own ‘character’ on top of a Simpsons character?
Generally, and especially in this case, the shortest shortcut to my visual identity is hair. After all, the facial features will be Simpson-ized, so I have to rely on hair for my avatar’s identity.
No real offense intended, but it might be different for a man. His visual identity might be able to trade on sideburns, facial scruff, a mustache. He might give his Simpson avatar short hair, long hair, a curling ‘fro.
But this is the nearest I could find to my own hair, past or present, and the outcome is, for want of a better word, shrugging. By choosing the hairstyle nearest to my Self’s real-life hair, I have created an avatar identity that is distinctively faraway from my Self. It is distinctly indistinct.
Sure, using the Simpsons avatar as evidence of anything is unfair. The goal is to look, not like myself, after all, but like a Simpson. My pale flesh-colored skin is reinvented as pale yellow. I wear cartoon glasses, and I have a stylized overbite. Yet the implied humor of ‘Simpsonizing’ yourself using the flash avatar creator is, indeed, to create a vain ‘celebrity’ version of the Self as it would appear in a Simpsons episode. But especially for a woman, this motive seems unavailable. Why is that?
I Hair, Therefore I Am
Specifically, her blog looks at the changes in the hairstyles of Princess Toadstool and Princess Peach. Are they different people only because they have different hair colors? When clothing is stripped away—and indeed, in the case of fan-made pornography, Pixelante remarks, it is literally stripped away—hair color is the only discernible identity marker for Mario’s leading lady.
(Quick aside. Three seconds of research yielded the following: Princess Toadstool and Princess Peach are, in fact, the same person. -editor)
In her final paragraph, Miss Pixelante discusses iconography in a broader sense. She writes,
There was a time—those of us who are growing up with videogames as a given may not realize this—when the minute details of the appearance and identity of the characters who inhabit our videogames were not etched out and trademarked, and each of us had room to fill in the ambiguities between a character’s pixels. This is why I think projects like ‘i am 8-bit’ are so important: they reassert that each of us as players own an image of our favorite game’s characters that may be different than their author’s, because Nintendo doesn’t own our experiences. This is part of the reason why the cast of the ‘8-bit era’ resonates so much with us: because we define them, much more so than the talking, hyper-detailed characters of so many contemporary games.
I do not mean to miscommunicate her intent by publishing just this paragraph, but it is this paragraph that coincides most with Scott McCloud’s writings on cartooning and caricature. With a cartoon, and especially an 8-bit one, we are able to superimpose our own intent onto the blank slate character we are shown.
On the subject of hair, and for Auntie Pixelante’s aforementioned blog post, I remarked:
There was an online game-project, three or four years ago, that was all about word association. You were shown an image, or photograph, or graphic, and you needed to type the words that came to mind. Your goal was to type the same words you thought everyone else had assigned to each image.
Of course, the project was not a game at all—the idea was to get real humans to tag photos and make them human-searchable rather than robo-searchable. Here’s what they found out instead: any time somebody saw a photograph of a woman—any woman!—they would type “hair.” It is, especially for a man, the most salient thing about a woman’s appearance. It immediately and conveniently simplifies her visual identity down into an icon.
More broadly, though, I think we do the same with race, eyeglasses, wheelchairs, braces. I am not sure what this means.
I know for sure that Miss Pixelante is onto something. Otherwise my avatars would not rely on out-of-date hair for their identities.
Edit, five months later: over here.
Will it never end? Is there no respite? The disjointed ruminations will, we hope, come to a close in Avatars, part III of III.