MIT Comparative Media Studies Colloquium Series

Posted on February 8, 2022

Eric Freedman: Non-Binary Binaries and Unreal Metahumans (Thursday, February 10)

Video game engines have promoted a new cultural economy for software production and have provided a common architecture for digital content creation across what were once distinct media verticals—film, television, video games and other immersive and interactive media forms that can leverage real-time 3D visualization. Game engines are the building blocks for efficient real-time visualization, and they signal quite forcefully the colonizing influence of programming. Video game engines are powering our visual futures, and engine developers that include Unity Technologies and Epic Games are rapidly iterating their products to tackle new markets, where data and visuality continue to converge. This analysis, which draws from software studies and studies of visual culture, examines a tool that is fairly new to the Epic Games arsenal—the in-development MetaHuman Creator that is part of Epic’s proprietary Unreal Engine. The MetaHuman Creator is a cloud-streamed application that draws from a library of real scans of people and allows 3D content developers to quickly create unique photorealistic fully-rigged digital humans. MetaHuman creation is a fluid of process, and the speedy transformation of character rigs and other non-binary attributes highlights the potential queerness or openness of data. Yet the ongoing push toward (hyper)realism in commercial media has birthed a visual economy which is supported by an industrial apparatus that privileges mastery over the tools of production, and where bodies and politics are often cleaved in the design process. Epic’s multiethnic, multiracial, transgender MetaHuman Creator is a design tool and not a narrative engine. Its transitions are simple and seamless, and the traces of non-binary and non-white identities are simply part of a larger color palette. These tools represent a way of seeing and knowing the world, and the representations they produce are part of hermetically-sealed and privately-held encoding processes that include a company’s original data, its application programming, its proprietary build environment and its interface. This analysis poses two interrelated questions. Are the MetaHuman Creator and similar simplified building tools democratizing the field of digital content creation? Are they fostering more diverse representations and narratives, and supporting the free play of identity in playable media?