Computer-generated imagery and the algorithms that drive them are the technological breakthroughs that have seen our world recreated in digital form. But when it comes to representing humans, these advancements have predominantly refined the depictions white people. Across games and digital media, the standard models for rendering features like skin and hair have been developed and perfected over decades, but are all geared towards, young, white skin and straight hair. Now, a new 3D database is seeking to address the lack of thoughtful representation of Blackness in games.
JAMES PARKINSON: Computer-generated imagery and the algorithms that drive them are the technological breakthroughs that have seen our world realistically recreated in digital form. From film to video games, these virtual worlds are becoming more and more life-like. And one of the greatest challenges in this effort has been recreating humans.
TED KIM: The desire to make a digital human has been around for quite a long time. There was, I think it was from the 80s, there was a short film that someone made where they had, like, a digital Marilyn Monroe, and a digital Humphrey Bogart in it. So of course, it looks quite primitive by today's standards, but yeah, this idea has been around for a long time.
JAMES PARKINSON: This is Professor Ted Kim.
TED KIM: Hi, I'm Ted Kim. I'm an Associate Professor of Computer Science at Yale University. I specialise in computer graphics.
JAMES PARKINSON: Ted has been in the field for about 20 years. Before his academic career, he was a Senior Research Scientist at Pixar.
JAMES PARKINSON: As technology has developed, digital representations of humans have come a long way. But as Ted wrote in an article for Scientific American, these advancements have predominantly refined the depictions white people.
TED KIM: So you know, you can fire up Gears of War or something and, you know, there's a black character. So it's not like you can't do black characters but does he look as good as the white characters? And maybe he looks okay, and how much effort actually had to go into actually creating that? So how difficult is it to actually create a non-white character? And the further you get from white, how much more difficult is it? So if you go to the tutorials in these software packages that people use to make games and make movies, and you look at the tutorials for human skin, most of the time it's an extremely pale human that is being shown and they are showing you how to set the material properties of this skin, and then how to light that skin. So if that is not the case that you're actually interested in, what do you do? And if you can't actually get the look that you want, what is to blame here? Is it because your lighting isn't very good or is it because the algorithm itself is actually missing something that's very important in darker skin?
JAMES PARKINSON: The real breakthrough for rendering “skin” in computer-generated imagery was a technique called “dipole approximation”. It was developed by scientists at Stanford university and was applied by Weta Digital when they created the CGI character of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies. The effect of “dipole approximation” was in replicating the behaviour of light when it hits the skin, which, previously, was very difficult to render.
TED KIM: There's this algorithm, it's called ray tracing, and it tries to simulate the physics of light. So the way that light actually bounces off of objects, and then enters into your eye, and then forms an image on your retina. So in the 80s and the 90s, most of the objects, they were assumed to be just hard, so a light ray would hit a surface, and then bounce off of it at exactly the same location, you know, just like a billiard ball. And then it would bounce up, and then maybe bounce off a few more objects, and then it would bounce into your eye. So it sounds hard, right? Like a billiard ball is actually bouncing off of something. And the kinds of pictures that it could generate were hard. So for example, it's not a coincidence that Toy Story is about toys. It is a bunch of hard surfaces. If you look at the few images, you know, of, like, Andy, the boy that owns the toys in that movie, it's very fleeting, and he looks really creepy, because the techniques were not good at that right at the time. And they knew it, right? They were good storytellers, and they were going to go where they could tell a good story. So they made it out of hard materials.
TED KIM: Now the thing about skin, let's say, so I'm going to use “skin” in a very cautious way here. So the thing about skin, it began to start being characterised in the late 90s and the early 2000s, was that it's not a hard surface. Like even if you look at it, it is soft, right? So you put a light on it, and it's not that you get these hard metallic glints off of it. The light, it hits your skin and then sort of diffuses out, right? It's almost like you put a drop of creamer into a cup of coffee and then it sort of spreads out, except instead of creamer there was like a light ray. So a light ray would hit the skin, and it doesn't bounce off like a billiard. It actually spreads out a little bit. And what's actually happening is it actually penetrated into the skin and then it is actually bouncing around beneath the surface of the skin. And then a little time later it actually exits from a different location. So that is translucency. Like, if you shine a flashlight at a block of wax or something like that, you can see the beam of your flashlight just sort of spread out through the piece of wax. And it started to be used to characterise just the skin as well, so if you can't get this effect of light spreading out as it hits skin then you're not going to be able to get a realistic looking human.
JAMES PARKINSON: These algorithms are often held up as an example of technology's ability to recreate convincing digital humans. Years of research and money has been poured into developing and refining them. And Ted says this is CGI’s racist legacy, because translucency, which this technology replicates, is only a characteristic of young, white skin, or fair skin.
TED KIM: And it's not clear how important it is if you have, like, very dark skin. And if you look at some of the follow-up papers that were published afterwards, where they actually do try to characterise, you know, all different types of skin, you do see that the numbers drop off quite a bit when they're trying to render darker skin. So you know, the reason I use the term “skin” very carefully is, it came to mean a certain thing. And I don't think it really is fair to say that this is important for every skin type, across all humans. I think it's very important for certain skin types, and it's unfortunate that it has become synonymous with just “skin”.
JAMES PARKINSON: And algorithmic bias in technology like CGI and 3D modelling isn’t limited to skin. So if you’re a game developer looking to accurately portray people of colour, the resources available to you are extremely limited. But one artist is aiming to change that, for Black hair, developing the Open Source Afro Hair Library.
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
A.M. DARKE: It feels like the hegemonic society often wants to see - when it does want to see representation, it still wants to be in control of that. And so you see, like - I've seen more games that are showing like, you know, protagonists of colour and like, you know, these dignified and thoughtful ways, but then you look at the dev team and it's still like you don't see people of colour on the team.
A.M. DARKE: Like, yes, hashtag representation matters, but like, 20 or 30 years ago, instead of empathy or representation, we were saying “awareness”. It was all about awareness campaigns. What are you doing? You're raising money for awareness. It's like, we have the internet, we're all aware, we know that there are problems, we know that there's racism and bias and sexism and like, what are we gonna do about it?
JAMES PARKINSON: This is A.M. Darke.
A.M. DARKE: I'm A.M. Darke. I'm a multi-disciplinary artist, game designer and I also do new media art. I am an Assistant Professor of games and playable media. And I'm also a principal faculty in critical race and ethnic studies at UC Santa Cruz. And on top of that, I am also the founding director of The Other Lab, which is an intersectional, feminist research space for experimental games, XR and new media.
JAMES PARKINSON: In recent years, there have been some positive steps to diversify games, in playable characters, storylines and customisation options. These efforts should be celebrated, but there is still work to be done.
A.M. DARKE: You know, there's like, I know people are really excited about the Miles Morales character in the latest Spider Man game, like, his Afro has a nice lineup. And so, like, that's a little bit of progress. Animal Crossing updated their hair textures to have things that are, you know, seem at least explicitly coded as, like, Afro hair and kinky patterned hair. So I do think that things are improving but, you know, awareness doesn't always translate into action.
JAMES PARKINSON: When it comes to representation of Black people in games and digital media, there is often a conversation on features like hair, because black hair has long had social and political ties.
James Parkinson: You wrote about how Black hair is seen as a liability. How do these racist ideas permeate through games and digital media?
A.M. DARKE: There's a couple things going on. One, the lack of representation for black hair is a harmful admission, in part because Black hair is so politicised. And that's not a choice that Black people opt into, it's something that's imposed upon us. However, after, sort of, skin tone, hair is one of the primary ways in which a Black person is identified as Black, you know, our hair texture will give us away. So it's like skin tone, hair texture, and then features.
TED KIM: With hair, there's all this other stuff, like, in fact, so I'm in Connecticut, in the USA right now. And one of the lawmakers in our state, she just introduced a bill saying that you can't discriminate against people who have kinky hair - so, like, Afro textured hair. You can't discriminate against people who just come to work with the hair that, actually, they were born with, and you know that they have styled in a reasonable way.
JAMES PARKINSON: Again, this is Ted Kim.
TED KIM: But the thing is, is that because there's a lot of social stigma surrounding it, it's not actually that well represented in, you know, your everyday environment, either. There's lots of hair treatments that people who have Afro textured, and kinky hair actually do to their hair to make it look straighter, to make it more socially acceptable. So there is also that, sort of, confounding factor, it's not quite as visible.
A.M. DARKE: So if you're talking about being able to represent yourself, not just represent the way that you look, but it to some degree, represent your power, I mean, because even you know, like, the Afro, natural hair movement, even that, like all of these things are sort of responses to social oppression, right? The Afro is like a powerful symbol. Yes, it's the way that hair naturally grows out of Black person's head, for many of us, but to allow us to just have our hair the way it is, and not change it, not try to conform to a more socially acceptable, white, European standard, that's a powerful statement. And that's evolved to even natural hair, which, which is, you know, okay, no longer using dangerous chemical relaxers or you know, trying to, again, find ways that are more rooted in culture and rooted in care. And again, trying to shift away from, from the pressure to be whiter, essentially. And so by omitting that in our media, you're essentially taking away a voice, you're not really allowing Black folks to represent themselves in maybe a more powerful way, or a way that feels comfortable, or a way that feels even, just recognition. And maybe that last point is harder to communicate and maybe something that a lot of folks who aren't Black don't understand. That it's not even about like, you know, “give me the Black Panther, fist up, giant Afro, you know, Afro pick in my hair”. It's really just like, my natural body doesn't exist to people.
A.M. DARKE: And as we, you know, get into virtual reality and we get into Zoom, we start relying more on digital likenesses and avatars, which is definitely where I think we're going, you know, that becomes important. What happens if you just can't exist in a space? Like, you know, what happens if your skin tone just doesn't exist? You know, I don't want a bunch of yellow emojis on Zoom. You know, I want my brown hands, right? So in a way, it's like erasure of personhood.
JAMES PARKINSON: As for the very algorithms behind these digital recreations, for black hair, they don’t exist.
TED KIM: So this type of hair, sort of this kinky, Afro textured hair, this is not represented in the computer graphics algorithms at all.
TED KIM: So all of the algorithms out there, for both simulating the motion - so like, you know, if, if you're riding in a car and you stick your hair out the window, you know, how does your hair actually sort of flutter in the wind? There's no algorithm for computing how hair like that actually moves in the wind. They're all geared towards straight hair. There are a few papers on curly hair. So for example, Merida from Brave, because she had such curly hair, and because she was the main character in the film, they came up with a whole new algorithm just for her. So there are cases for that. But Afro textured hair, it is quite a bit curlier than that. And just the physics of it is quite a bit different. And nobody has looked at it. So we've only found one paper, actually, that even attempted to do a simulation on this. And that was 15 years ago. So we have one paper, 15 years old. So yeah, it's time to take a try.
JAMES PARKINSON: A.M. Darke wanted to address this problem, so she came up with the idea for the Open Source Afro Hair Library.
A.M. DARKE: It's a 3D database for Black hair textures and styles. Which, you know, I just discovered, there wasn't really much representation, at least in these sort of 3D marketplaces that I was looking for in my work, where you can either download models for free or purchase them.
JAMES PARKINSON: In 2017, A.M. Darke was working on a project about public space, and how people navigate it, based on their self-identification and perceptions of their identity. And she became frustrated with the kinds of assets she found on 3D marketplaces.
A.M. DARKE: [54:39] That project was pretty cool, I was getting by on, like I think I was using a lot of Mixamo and Adobe Fuse, and you know I'm kind of putting together these models and I'm using all this sort of sliders in extreme ways to get as many diverse characters as I possibly can. And it's mostly working, I'm pulling it off, I'm changing the clothes up, I'm finding, you know, different assets and making them work. But the big limitation, in terms of like, representing Black people was, like, the hair. There was only one...there was one model that was explicitly Afro hair and that was un-styled locks. And like, they were locks but, like, they were just kind of like, I don't know, if you're not a Black person you might just think, “oh yeah just dreadlocks, they just grow out of your head and that's it”. But it's like no, Black people style them, Black people go and there a lockticians, there are hair specialists, specifically to make them look nice, like you know to give them a part, to go to the side, to be segmented in a certain way. And I know those details, so when I see locks in a video game, I'm like, they're just the super slicked back things, I'm like, “that's not a style, that's just utility”, i guess. But that was sort of the Blackest hairstyle. And then the other hairstyle was kind of like my hair texture but it was curly and big, not explicitly Black, it could have been a different kind of hairstyle. But I was like, “okay, close enough for, kind of, mixed hair texture”, but no 4C or 4B or Type 4. And Type 4 hair is sort of what people would think of, if they think of a more kinky, coily hair. And so like, that just wasn't represented, except for in locks. And so when it came to the diversity of characters, I was getting away with a lot, having this roster, but then it was like having to reuse the same two hairstyles for Black folks was like, “I’m not fooling anybody”. And it was really important to telling the story, like the way that I presented this Blackness. And that's when I was like, “wow like, this hair is just not it. I have to figure out something”.
JAMES PARKINSON: A.M. Darke received support from the Hellman Fellowship to develop the Afro Hair Library, and as she began to look into all of this further, she discovered that when there were depictions of Blackness, in some of these marketplaces, they were often degrading, misogynistic, and racist.
A.M. DARKE: In the research I was doing, looking at these different 3D marketplaces and just seeing how terrible the representation was - either the lack of representation or like, the really denigrating depictions. For example, if you search “Afro hair”, you might find like, on one site, there's like, you'll see like some cows and a horse before you ever even get to a Black person. So even thinking hierarchically about, like, cows and horses, you know, being presented before black humans. It is easier to find, basically these depictions of, like, “African” - and I'm saying this in air quotes - like, vaguely “African” tribal - it's like these Black characters who have oversized, big, bright red lips, giant white, bug eyes, you know, almost like clownish and wearing you know, tribal gear - whatever that is, you know, not any particular tribe, but just some kind have like, primitive clothing. And then the woman is like - the men are portrayed as like, kind of long and skinny. And then the woman's portrayed is like, you know, just this sort of overweight mammy, like it's just a mammy. It's a minstrel character. You'll see things, like, one model that comes up in a Top 10 is like African American homeless man. And by the way, the homeless man is wearing a beanie, so you can't even see his hair. So it's like, you know, again, it's like, this is the depiction of Blackness, that you have. Just an unhoused person. And it's just like, okay, I mean, there's levels to that - like, there's nothing wrong with being unhoused, but the idea that like, Blackness only exists in the most marginalised forms. There's a 3D model that shows a Black woman with really excellent braids that are even styled. I'm like, “oh, yeah, I know what kind of braids those are, that's representative of my culture. But then she's actually like, spread eagle, completely nude, her knees parted, you know, and her wrists are tied behind her back, and there's a rope around her wrist and around her neck. And this leads me to the major point I want to make, which is, there's something that makes me uncomfortable about the buying, selling, trading of Black bodies in a marketplace. You know, it reminds me of something.
JAMES PARKINSON: 3D modelling for games is still a relatively new art form, and it’s concerning that these kinds of assets have been created by artists just within the last few years. So the type of results that are surfacing on these 3D marketplaces is a huge problem, but it’s also an issue with search functions themselves, and the bias that’s embedded in their algorithms.
A.M. DARKE: Algorithmic bias is essentially the ways in which algorithms encode and perpetuate the same kind of social biases that we have in our various societies and cultures. A quick example of this from Safiya Noble’s book ‘Algorithms of Oppression’ was - before she started doing this research and Google actually changed this - she did a Google search for “Black girls”. She was doing some activity with some younger family members of hers. And so she searched for “Black girls”, and what came up were pornographic images of Black women. And so that idea, the bias there, one; that if someone's searching for “black girls”, they don't mean innocent children, they mean sexualised women. So already, how “Black girl” gets sexualised, but then even how women get infantilised, and that when you're talking about a woman in a sexual way, it's often to use this diminutive form, right? And so if you search for “Black girls”, you see these pornographic images and these fetishistic images that were not appropriate for children, for the very Black girls that she was looking for content for. So again, that erasure, that not being able to see yourself or looking for yourself, you're shown how the world sees you, which is in these really dehumanising ways, or degrading ways. But then when you searched for “white girls”, it's what you would expect from some kind of, you know, that kind of search term, it was pictures of youthful innocence, actual female children who were white, playing or frolicking. And so that is an example of algorithmic bias. And you know, that this comes up in predictive searches, Google has changed some of this, but you can probably find some histories of predictive searches where it's like, if you type in, “why are black people…?”, or “why are black women…?”. And it kind of auto-completes the top ten, which, for a while, you know, were quite insulting.
JAMES PARKINSON: While Google addressed many of these problems, in response to heavy criticism, algorithmic bias is still an issue, just generally, and that extends to the digital storefronts of 3D marketplaces.
A.M. DARKE: It's not just the lack of representation. But it's that even to look for depictions of Blackness, the fact that I even have to scroll past this Jim Crow era racism. I don't want to deal with that. I don't want my little sister, if she wants to go and make games or make 3D art, to see that. Like, it's dehumanising that that's just your experience when searching for Afro hair. And even like, the fact that Blackness is, if you think about how search algorithms work, and you search for “Black hair”, Black hair, to me means something very specific. Because I lived my whole life thinking about Black hair every day, I'm dealing with a mass of Black hair. But for other people, it's just, you know, black is a colour, right? So if you try to search for this on a site, you're gonna get hair that's maybe black in colour. So then it's like, this becomes another level of erasure that became clear to me, because to even find your own hair texture, as a Black person, you have to kind of trick the algorithm into recognising you, like recognising your race. So for example, saying “Black hair”, that's not going to get it. So then I'm like, “well, how can I talk to this algorithm and let it know what kind of black I mean?”. So then I ended up searching for things like “African hair”, but like, I'm a Black American, I'm not African. So it's almost like I can't even be myself to find this. And then I started searching for “Afro hair”. And I'm like, I guess that's kind of it, but like, I'm not always looking for the comically oversized Afro, right? And “curly hair” doesn't really give me the results because curly hair is not necessarily the same - what, you know, a white person would think of as curly hair is not necessarily depicting Black hair. So, again, it's like the idea that as a Black person, you have to like, already do this puzzle, just to figure out how to find yourself. Or you have to kind of lie, you have to say, like, “Afro hair”, or “Afro American”, or “African”, you know. You're trying to find all these code words to understand how white folks understand Blackness, so you can see yourself through them to find the representation of yourself on sites that they control. Yeah, so yeah, there's, there's a lot to this.
JAMES PARKINSON: Coming up, we dive deeper into the algorithms behind 3D modelling and CGI technology, and how the Afro Hair Library is providing more inclusive, thoughtful and respectful 3D assets for the games community.
JAMES PARKINSON: If you’re wanting to depict accurate and respectful representations of Black hair textures and styles in your game, you’re going to run into two main problems. The lack of good existing assets available, whether they be free or paid, and the absence of capable 3D modelling algorithms, if you wish to create your own through software. While developing the Afro Hair Library, A.M. Darke has been working with Ted Kim to figure out how to tackle the algorithm issue.
A.M. DARKE: Ted alerted me to the fact that there was no, sort of, procedure for generating kinky hair. And part of the reason for that is that the current way that they model straight hair or generate straight hair, is these kinds of tubes, these sort of strands. And so the strands are touching each other. And so basically you have this computation issue where there's too much physics, right? Like, overlapping. So if you think about straight hair growing all in one direction, there's potential for overlap but for the most part, you can kind of work it where it's in parallel. And that's already computationally taxing. But like, think about, if you imagine hair, how many sort of, I guess planes are touching each other, and how you have to account for that, like what's in front, what's in back and all of that. And now think about really, really kinky hair, where you're not just thinking of a solid tube, but now it's a coil tube and think about all of those - every coil becomes an additional way to overlap, exponentially. And so all of those calculations for how you're dealing with that, those collisions, essentially, is not feasible at this moment, in terms of how long it would take. So, and part of the limitation there, you can look at that and say, like, “okay, well, that's just too difficult, so we can't do curly hair”. But what Ted and I have been talking about, and, you know, we've been sort of working through is this idea, “well, maybe we just need a totally different model for how you think about curly hair?” So maybe instead of curly hair, being, you know, these cylinders that overlap, like, maybe you have to think of it kind of as a collective mass. And so we've been talking about that. And I've been talking to him about how Afro hair works, and how it grows in this direction, it doesn't go down and almost like thinking about, how would you simulate other materials, almost like spongy, right? That can be compressed in this way, and ways that we - just kind of new paradigms for understanding the mechanisms of hair that are unique to Afro hair, as opposed to straight hair. Instead of just trying to take the straight hair method and just sort of say, “well, now the straight hair has more coils”, because you know, those methods aren't going to work. They're just not the right models for dealing with hair that kind of acts less as individual strands, and more as a sort of cohesive, but flexible, squishy mass.
JAMES PARKINSON: While there are limitations to current algorithms, which makes rendering kinky textured hair challenging and complex, it’s not impossible, given time, dedication and understanding. Here’s Ted.
TED KIM: There's a short film on Netflix called Canvas. It's a computer-generated film, it's a cast of Black characters. And some of the characters, they do have Afro textured hair. And somebody actually wrote an article about how they made the hair for that short film. And of course, you can do it because they actually did make the film. But it sort of existed outside of the tool chain of how you're supposed to make, you know, quote, unquote, “hair” in these software packages. So you know, if you're creative, and you're dedicated, and, you know, this is the look that you want, you can do it. But it is not the easy way to do it. And then and when it's not the easy way to do it, you just don't see it that often. And then the type of visual that is easy to do, you just see more and more of it, because you know, everyone can do it. And it just sort of consolidates its dominance, and that is unfortunate.
TED KIM: Why are we neglecting this form of humanity? We should investigate it and understand it. And not only will we then understand that type of hair, once you understand both ends of the spectrum, you know, super straight hair, and then super, super curly hair, I think it'll give you a better understanding of everything in between as well.
JAMES PARKINSON: Funding for this kind of research is expensive but if the industry is going to change, there needs to be a willingness to do so, and an understanding of why the research matters. Only then will we begin to see new algorithms.
TED KIM: There's this repeating cycle in computer graphics research, where a certain generation says, “we can do everything now”. So, for example, in the 90s, before all these skin algorithms started becoming more plausible, there was a sub part of the community that said, “I'm pretty sure we can render any image that you want now”, you know, “it's just a matter of polishing the existing algorithms, and maybe some more computing horsepower”. And then someone pointed out all these different phenomena, like subsurface scattering in white skin, for example, that just don't fit into the current formalism. And then there was a burst of new activity, to develop new algorithms that actually capture these things that have just been missing before. And I think we converged on the same thing recently, where it was, “oh, so virtual humans are basically done now”, like, “the uncanny valley has been traversed and now it's just a little bit of polishing is left for the existing algorithms”. And, you know, it was the same people who would have been the naysayers before, you know, like in the 90s. Like, no, there's still, you know, large vistas that still need to be explored. So, you know, it's just history repeating again. It's like, “no, actually, it looks like there's a whole host of phenomena that have just not been examined that well”, and we should examine these again. So, you know, there's a certain cycle of blindness, I want to say that, that seems to repeat, and this is the current iteration of that cycle that we're sitting in right now.
JAMES PARKINSON: While I was producing this story, Epic Games released a demo for their new software tool called MetaHuman - you may have seen it, it received quite a bit of press coverage at the time. And at first glance, it does look very impressive, and somewhat photorealistic.
MetaHuman Demo Audio: “I am a MetaHuman. The next generation of digital human, powered by Unreal Engine. MetaHuman’s are high-fidelity digital characters, created by you, the user, on our new content creation platform, MetaHuman Creator”
TED KIM: So I haven't given it a spin yet. So, yeah, I don't want to say too much about the pros and the cons of it. So the first thing, of course, because I've been looking at hair so much, the first thing that jumped out to me when I saw the sort of the demo videos was, “oh, I see. So the Black hair is extremely close-cropped, right?” So if you don't have a good simulation or rendering model, you know, for this type of hair, what is sort of the easy fallback that you can do? And that is to just cut it very short. And that's the easy one that I see in the demo for the Epic MetaHuman stuff. Again, I haven't taken it for a spin, maybe it actually does support that other type of hair, in some way. But at the same time, I know the literature, I know which algorithms are out there. And there's not really an algorithm for this. So unless they came up with a new one all by themselves, which is not what the game companies do. They just polish existing algorithms, and they make really great tools out of them. They don't usually come up with their own new algorithms. So unless you know, something very different than usual happened, and they came up with their own algorithm, I don't really expect that they're gonna handle Afro textured hair very well.
JAMES PARKINSON: Not all depictions of people in games are aiming for photorealism though, obviously art styles vary a lot. But that doesn’t mean that those representations should be any less accurate and respectful. And for the Afro Hair Library, A.M Darke is looking to include a variety styles.
JAMES PARKINSON: She’s not a 3D artist herself, so she’s collaborating with other artists and commissioning them to create the assets for the library. And this process of working closely with the artists is important in ensuring the work is really in tune with the spirit of the project.
A.M. DARKE: You know initially, my plan was to work with a few artists. I wanted to commission 100 models, launch the site and start to open it up for submissions and they'd go through like a moderation process, just so that we wouldn't get sort of like racist or trolley things. But then I realised just even the process of talking about the work and seeing how excited people were and people reaching out, wanting to contribute, that you know the relationship that I had with the first, actually couple of contributors, which is a student of my former student from UC Santa Cruz named Annabel Maokhamphiou, who's lovely and did some of the initial tests. And then another 3D artist, HD Harris, they have been wonderful to work with. And I think that you know, part of this I haven't talked a lot about, isn't just paying Black creators and showing representations of Blackness, but also bringing Black digital artists into community with each other. And I've realised that I actually have to retain that sort of authorship, and I will never open it up, that it has to be this commission sort of method, in part because building that relationship with the artists, I'm very much a director and I'm very specific about what I'm looking for and what I want to capture. And anytime that you're depicting someone, you know drawing, sculpting, these are ways of seeing, fundamentally. And I know this because I'm an artist myself. So if you don't see someone and i don't mean just, like look at them, but see them, you know recognise them, you can't depict them. You won't be able to really capture their essence. And so if you don't think about Black people and you don't love Black people - not just love their music or their style or their charisma, but like, love the people, you're not going to be able to create representations that are loving. When you see people, really, and you love them and you appreciate them and you value them, that it comes off in your work, regardless of what your race is. And I see that even with non-Black artists, when I see like, “oh yeah this person has really looked carefully and closely at Black features”, and you know, I mean we say this with photography, you know if you want to know how somebody views you, let them take your picture.
A.M. DARKE: By the way, I guess I didn't say this. Every hairstyle, it's not just like disembodied hair. Every artist - and this is another reason why I can work with different styles and aesthetics is - every artist will create a bust that goes with that. And then I kind of check to see, “well, who can build a full character?”. And so we'll have different ranges. So some people might just have a head that these different hairstyles can be sort of shifted onto and then you can build out a body or can work with that. Or some people will have fully done characters. And so you'll have kind of, you know, a standard base that you can change up. But you'll have the specifications, if you want to put it on a different model and what have you.
JAMES PARKINSON: Considering the existing issues around some 3D marketplaces, A.M. Darke made a very deliberate decision in naming the project.
A.M. DARKE: So the Open Source Afro Hair Library, that name was considered. And it actually didn't start with that name. The first name that I had was Open Source Natural Hair Library. And I thought a lot about what made me feel alienated from tech spaces. From my own experience, sometimes you hear words that feel - at least for me, I am speaking for myself as a Black person who doesn't come from a sort of affluent social class - you hear words that just feel excessively white. White, liberal and exotic, and like far away. And there's not really a logical reason for that - or not a readily apparent logical reason for that. It's just something that I think you might see in a particular context. And because of the context, it feels alien or foreign. So okay, if I think of open source as being very white and male, not only in perception, but in reality, then what's less white and male? Well, Afro, inherently Black. Afro hair is exclusive to Black people. And hair, in general, when we think of Afro hair, we often are thinking of Black women's hair. And so if I see Afro hair, I'm already thinking that's a space I can be in. If I see Afro hair, in juxtaposition with open source, I think I'm already intrigued by the name, So that's why I put those two terms together. And the reason I evolved it from natural hair to Afro hair was again, this idea of how these terms lose meaning and how I want it to be overtly political and overtly have a voice. “Natural hair” used to be, maybe eight to ten years ago, clearly was language used by the Black hair community. But since then, it's kind of evolved to anyone with curly hair. So Afro, you know, even the symbol of the afro right? Going back to political movements and thinking about hair as an act of resistance. You know, I just thought there was a lot of power in that. And I think when you see Open Source Afro Hair Library, you're like, “wow, that's a long name. But also, what is that? I want to know what it is”, regardless of who you are. Whether you're intrigued by the open source, or you're intrigued by the Afro hair, or you just really love libraries. I think it's a good, provocative name.
JAMES PARKINSON: And making the library open source means it’s a free and accessible resource, lowering the barrier for all levels of developers and creators.
A.M. DARKE: I want it to be open to everyone, to have that as a resource. And I, you know, like so many other indies, I think a lot about accessibility. And, you know, I'm hesitant to use this term, but I'm gonna use it anyway, you know, democratising the tools. And you know, part of this issue, like I talked about, like making sure that the people who we're trying to represent get to represent themselves, is making that easier, lowering the bar for entry. And so I'm definitely primarily thinking about, you know, little Black boys, Black Girls, and you know, little Black folks beyond the binary who are curious about making games or curious about technology, or curious, even just about seeing representations of themselves. And I want to make it so easy for you to download and play with these models. I want to make it so easy for you to download a model and throw it into your game or throw it into your work or throw it into your 3D sculpture, whatever it is that you're going to do. And I also want the models to be so high-quality, that one, people want to use them, like individuals, and learn with them. But also, like, I want it to become the standard, I really want the Afro Hair Library to be like, “oh, where do you go to get your 3D models? Oh, there? Why? Because they're excellent”. I want it to be available to complete novices, I want it to be available to folks who've never tried and never dabbled, but they're so compelled. But then I also don't want that excuse anymore, that we don't know how, because the Afro Hair Library is going to show you how. And I love some of the responses that were a little bit unanticipated for me were from 2D artists, who were saying, “yeah, I really want to draw kinky and coily hair, but there aren't good references for it. And so even just having a 3D model that I can look at and rotate will help me as an artist or as a character artist. And so, you know, I don't want to hear that studios don't know how to do it, because we'll model that for you. And not only are we modelling it for, like literally modelling it, you can download our models, you can use our models, you can remix our models. And the only thing I'm really hesitant about is like, you know, people taking these models and then putting it into some like, you know, KKK brutalised Black people game. And I think I can't really stop that. But I would like to have something in, like, the terms of service, or whatever it is. I would like a nod at least to like, “hey, this is the way that I don't want this to be used, in ways that are derogatory”. So you know, that has to be thought about. But it's really for everyone. I would love it if the Afro Hair Library became that place where people like, you know, maybe you're not even thinking about Black representation. But we have the best, the most beautiful models and such an easy-to-use, gorgeous website that you end up there. And maybe that's what people are using to teach in their classes. So I want to completely saturate the whole space with beautiful representations of Blackness.
JAMES PARKINSON: In every way, the Afro Hair Library is pushing back on the problems ingrained in many 3D asset marketplaces. Not just through the creation of assets themselves, but how they’re presented to the user and how people interact with the art.
A.M. DARKE: I don’t want a search feature. I don't want you to be able to type in the exact Blackness that you want. I've designed it such that, ideally, you get lost in it, a kind of Wikipedia rabbit hole of Blackness. And you can sort of filter by different types of hair and things like that. But the main thing that I want is when people come to the site, that they are overwhelmed by these extraordinarily sublime, beautiful depictions of Blackness, such that they have may have never conceived. And I think that's the issue with just feeding people what they want. I'm like, if you don't know anything about Blackness, if you've never heard of or seen a Bantu knot, I don't know that I want to give you the option to search for a comically large Afro. So this is where I'm already thinking differently about how we serve the images. I'm thinking about how we pose the models, you know, what does it look like to give those models - which are not real people, but are representative of real people - and in the sense that, you know, even in my fictional depictions of Blackness, I'm always keenly aware that these fictional representations have a true impact on how a real, living, breathing Black person will be perceived and treated. And I always think about that in my work. So here, I think, “okay, what if instead of the models facing you, and being easily consumed, which is what we're used to, when we think of objects that we want to own, what if all of the models are facing away from you?”. What if you see a grid of models and it's all the back of their heads, and you have to do some work to sort of spin that model in the browser, you know, just that gesture that these models are refusing your gaze and you have to work for - you have to take some action to even view them, I think can be really powerful. And again, it goes against this idea of just serving a consumer what they want. And instead I'm weaving a path, like, the Afro Hair Library isn't just 3D models. The sort of landing page for it will have articles about Black hair, about cultural and political issues. So I really think of it as a space that doesn't just allow you to sort of extract what you want from Blackness, but you have to dive in and kind of invest and learn some things and be confronted with, you know, politics. Like, it has a voice, it's not trying to be neutral, it's not trying to be sort of sanitised. And often neutral, you know, neutral just ends up meaning status quo, or not trying to introduce something new. And so I very much want to have a strong voice that is pro Black, pro queer, you know, makes a statement, isn't just a utility, but is really a cultural space that celebrates Blackness, amplifies the creators. So you always know who the artists are. It’s not going to be, “I just show up and I get what I want”. You’re going to be confronted, and I think that’s really powerful and something that I’m really excited about.
JAMES PARKINSON: As someone who’s been working in computer graphics for two decades, Ted Kim says that the impact of the Afro Hair Library is a hugely positive step forward.
TED KIM: So the work that A.M Darke is doing on the Open Source Afro Library, I think is fantastic. And I think the value of it is immeasurable. So without seeing lots of different examples, and sort of the variety that is out there in the real world, it's very difficult to even mentally conceptualise the visual language of what you want, and what is possible. So by building this library, it is helping just to develop the language of it and just the visual grammar of it. So it is just a very basic building block. And I've had many discussions with her about Black hair, and just the amount of knowledge that there is surrounding Afro textured, kinky hair, I had no idea. Like, there’s so much interesting technical things that go into, you know, the maintenance and the preparation of this type of hair. I don't think it's in the popular discourse. But if you actually want to accurately portray this, you have to be a huge nerd about it, right? You have to know every single detail of the process that people use, and then have that reflected in the algorithms. So yeah, her library is one really big step towards just a very basic understanding of the issues surrounding this kind of hair.
JAMES PARKINSON: So far, we’ve focused on the technology and how we can expand or advance it to achieve the results we want. But it’s important to remember that as computer graphics continues its push for things, like photorealism in our digital worlds, the technology itself can’t solve the diversity problem for us.
A.M. DARKE: Yeah, this is not just a technology problem. And like so many issues, it's like, “oh, we're gonna solve this with algorithms, and like, humans are flawed, but the technology will save us”. And it's like, “no, brah”. You know, you have to get to the systemic issues into the bias, into the racism, into the white supremacy - and like, I mean, white supremacy in terms of like the KKK burning crosses. But like, I'm talking about the white supremacy that says whiteness is the standard, and whiteness is what we will account for. You have to deal with that stuff. Because all the technology in the world, when created by humans, is only going to hard code, this biases. And we're already learning that once you sort of outsource judgment to technology, then it just gets hard coded, and there's no accountability, and nobody knows what the heck is going on, or how to fix it.
JAMES PARKINSON: Creating change doesn’t happen quickly, but when you empower creators with the tools to make inclusive and respectful work, the whole community benefits. And when A.M. Darke first announced the Afro Hair Library, she was inundated with incredible feedback, from people in the games industry and beyond.
A.M. DARKE: The response has been overwhelmingly supportive from all corners and, yeah, I guess it just tells me how much this is needed and desired by folks of all ethnicities. And that's really heartening because I think games gets a bad and well deserved wrap, but there are also so many people, and most creators in the space, who who really respect the medium, know that it's an art form, know that's a space for criticality and, like, we're all wanting to see it improve. And so that makes me really happy.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to A.M. Darke and Ted Kim. The Afro Hair Library is due to launch in June, 2021, and you can learn more at afrohairlibrary.org. Special thanks also to Evan Narcisse and Chella Ramanan. We have links to further reading and resources, including Ted Kim’s Scientific American article in the episode description, and on our website, gameplay.co.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and additional music from Blue Dot Sessions and Breakmaster Cylinder.
JAMES PARKINSON: You can follow the show on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook at ‘gameplaypodcast’. We also have a Discord, so come and join the community. And if you’d like an ad-free feed of the show, become a Gameplay Member and help us to make Gameplay sustainable. You’ll find all the links, plus episode transcripts on our website, gameplay.co. Thanks for listening.