Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds


Playing with Identity: The Rise of the Avatar



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Playing with Identity: The Rise of the Avatar


As mentioned earlier, the atomic unit, if you will, of a networked play community, is the avatar. Avatar, a Hindi term meaning a god’s embodiment on Earth, has been adopted universally in English to describe a player’s representation in virtual world, and increasingly, in online games. While Avatar was the name of a MUD that opened in 1979, and also a player state in Ultima IV, it does not seem to have come into the use to which we ascribe it today until around 1985. The term is attributed to Chip Morningstar, who coined it to describe player representations in the 2D graphical online community Habitat, the first real graphical MMOW, which he designed with Randy Farmer for Lucasfilm, later LucasArts. (Farmer and Morningstar 1991). Its first appearance in print seems to be in 1986, when it was used in an article about Habitat. (REF: Mortabito) Since this time, “avatar,” has been adopted universally to describe player characters in social virtual worlds, in part due to science fiction author Neal Stephenson’s introduction of the term his cyberspace classic Snow Crash.iii (REF: Stephenson) The more common term in MMOGs is “Player Character” or “PC,” or, more recently “toon” (short for cartoon), which has been adopted primarily in World of Warcraft, although avatar is increasingly coming in to use to describe player characters in this conetext as well. In games, non-player, autonomous characters, also known as “bots” (for robots) and “mobs” (for mobile) are broadly referred to primarily as “NPCs.” Some NPCs are enemies (autonomous characters that players do battle with), while others are more helper-characters that send players on quests or serve as merchants selling gear. Although the term “avatar” (sometimes shortened to “avie” or “avi”) can also be used to refer to characters in a text-based MUD or MOO (usually represented only as a text description), it is more commonly used to describe a graphical representation of the player in a two- or three-dimensional virtual world.iv
The relationships between players and their avatars is a complex subject that we are only beginning to fully understand. Players will sometimes refer to their avatar in first person, but just as often in second person. Much like its original meaning, most players in this study perceived the avatar as a medium through which ones inner persona or personality is expressed. As T.L. Taylor points out, people who have avatar personae are not ‘disembodied’, but have multiple bodies, including their physical corporeal bodies and their virtual avatar bodies (Taylor 1999). Both psychologist Sherrie Turkle and MUD-designer Richard Bartle have pointed out that inhabiting an avatar in a virtual world can often lead to a transformational inner journey. (REFS: Turkle, 1984, 1995; Bartle 2003.)
Among participants of the study described in this book, the terms avatar and player are used somewhat interchangeably, although avatar is sometimes used to distinguish things happening to the virtual “body” of the avatar itself. It is important to note that a player is in command of the agency of an avatar, meaning that avatars do not make decisions on their own. However, as we shall see, the distinction between the player and his or her avatar is somewhat blurry, and players will speak about their avatars in both the first and third person, even describing their corporeal body in physical space as their “real-life avatar.” Players tend to make a distinction between the “body,” whether it be “virtual” or “real,” and the person or “persona” which is channeled through one or the other of those bodies. This does not mean their personas are disembodied, rather that they are expressed through the multiple bodies highlighted by Taylor. (REF: Taylor) Most players interviewed felt that their avatar was an expression of their “true” selves as much if not more than their “real-life avatars.” Players who had met each other in real life were able to hold multiple conceptions of each other’s identities in their minds, encapsulating the personas as expressed in both the “real-life avie” as well as the avatar in virtual space. This multiplicity of identities is quite commonplace among people who lead online lifestyles who, in addition to perceiving their own “multiple bodies/personas,” learn to develop a unique sensibility that enables them to recognize other members of their play community as also having multiple bodies/personas. (Dibbell 1998; Markham 1998; Taylor 1999; Turkle 1984; Turkle 1995)
It is sometimes difficult for those unaccustomed to virtual worlds to understand these phenomena as anything other than a technologically-enabled (or even precipitated) form of multiple personality disorder. However, sociologists have long observed how people adopt or “put on” different personalities or personas in their different real-life roles: worker, parent, friend, etc. “Performing” different personas in different contexts is a standard part of how we adapt to social situations. In fact, as Goffman has pointed out, the inability to “perform” appropriately in social contexts is often an indicator of such disorders (Goffman 1963). In virtual worlds, what is viewed as “appropriate” is often significantly different from what might be considered appropriate behavior within real-life situations or occasions.
One of the challenges in talking about avatars is the misconception that they are not “real.” Avatars, by definition, are representations of “real” people; while these people are “mediated,” they are no less “real,” and, in fact, no less “mediated” than people we meet in the “real world.” A classic example of this misconception can be seen in a common online training that is given to university researchers in order to obtain approval to work with human subjects. The training web site points out that there are many challenges to Internet research including, “verifying the personhood of pseudonymous entities.” (REF) Notwithstanding the infamous story of an individual in an informal setting mistaking the online therapist “bot” ELIZA for a real person, I know of no trained Internet researcher who has mistaken an NPC for a human-controlled avatar. Just as players represented by avatars are no less “real” than players represented by corporeal bodies, the communities that form between them are no less real than communities that form between people in physical proximity to one another. They also would seem to have special properties, especially in the context of play, which lead to unique and deeply authentic social bonds.


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