Digital Humanities Blog Post no.01

“Avat, You!”  Representations of Avatars in Virtual Reality and MMORPGs

Avatar and character customisation in games has always interested me. My first taste of it was being able to plant myself – or at least a likeness – into Tony Hawks Underground on Nintendo Gamecube (2003). Online I found videos of gamers creating and playing as fabulated versions of Michael Jackson or Iron Man –the scope of creation was bottomless. Really though this never sat well with me, that any effects of immersion or telepresence (that I was in there) were scuppered by this out-of-place character suddenly appearing on screen. Maybe my style of playing is too restrictive (Tony Hawk is not Second Life) but this made me think of the separate categories of game in which different avatar types appear.

Character customization has been a mainstay of Role Playing Games (RPGs) since 1988’s Pool of Radiance for the Amiga, C64 and NES. Character customization is an integral part of role playing games, and as such Pool of Radiance was the first adaptation of board game Dungeons & Dragons for the home computer. With the complex system of race, class, colour and morality in use in these games, as well as the focus placed on weapons and garb, customisable character appearance was the logical next step.

Avatar customization has been locked in with RPGs for good reason. Dimitri Williams et al point to the double meaning inherent in “Role Play”:

“Today the term role playing has two distinct meanings in the context of these games. A RPG is one in which players must interact with the world from the perspective of a ‘‘character”. [The second in MMOs] is a player practice regarding how players talk, act, and engage with one another. In addition to controlling a character as all players must, a minority of players further talk and act ‘‘in character’’ or in a way that their characters might” (p.173, “Behind the Avatar: The Patterns, Practices, and Functions of Role Playing in MMOs”)

This is familiar to people interested in MedRen, antique weapon enthusiasts, Cosplay and battle re-enactments, and woe betide anyone who stops to answer their phone, or speaks in the common parlance, for destroying the illusion.

In a seminar discussion recently on virtual representation and avatars, one of my classmates explained how some systems are more open to outlandish appearances than others, the sense of dress propriety in Second Life vs the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach with World of Warcraft. I thought this was a very interesting point, so I decided to attempt a taxonomy of different avatar types.

First off are what I call opaque avatars, not avatars (visual representations of the user) in the strictest sense, but definitely not “present” in the same way that conventional characters are. They lack characterisation, are non-verbal, and usually share a first-person perspective. Examples include Half Life’s Gordon Freeman, whom you never see save for his extremities (excluding the game artwork), and The Legend of Zelda’s Link, who is largely non-verbal, is intended to “link” users to the game, a kind of transference and universality we find in Half Life’s naming also: “Freeman” like from a Restoration Play, a common serf or a freed slave.

Second are the fantastic avatars we find in many MMORPGs like World of Warcraft and League of Legends. Graphics are cartoonish instead of photorealistic, there is a wider colour palette, plus greater customization, race and class systems, where the avatar’s wardrobe can be both imaginative and a convenient way of displaying your in-game achievements. This whole enterprise looks to be as far away from the mimesis of Second Life as you’ll get. One criticism is that extremely improbable attire, such as pink on a Dragonborn in Elder Scrolls, is going to break any immersive experience you were just then enjoying. In an interesting article, Mik Furie points to how committed RPG-studio Bioware have started to curtail customization options, limiting your species to human where before it was any number of things, in order to better serve the narrative. So the direction games are now moving in is fantasy but with added realism and grit.

Third are realistic avatars, not just limited to sims such as Second Life or … The Sims. These could be realistic for various reasons – educational or commercial purposes on Second Life, where your avatar can represent a walking LinkedIn, for citizen anthropologists as with The Sims, or even some strategy and fantasy games, because veracity, accurate dates and period dress are exciting prospects.

To do with realistic avatars you now find avatars hung up on physical (or virtual) attractiveness. Perhaps demonstrating how closely aligned Second Life is with First or Real Life, the article “Does this Avatar Make Me Look Fat?” introduced In-Avatar interviews as part of a study where “avatar attractiveness impacted the level of intimacy people were willing to reach with strangers, and in the second study, avatar height affected people’s confidence” (p.4). This corresponds completely with RL people in RL interview situations, height and attractiveness being important factors in the success of an applicant.

The study involved the avatars performing exercise for an extended period:

“[The research] found that people who watched self-representing avatars (i.e., designed to replicate their own physical characteristics) running on a treadmill were more likely to engage in voluntary exercise within the subsequent 24 hours than those who watched either another person’s avatar using a treadmill or an avatar doing nothing” (p.5, “Does this Avatar Make Me Look Fat? Obesity and Interviewing in Second Life”).

The telepresence effect of this was really remarkable, and totally distinct from other avatar representations, maybe due to exercise being something mundane and accessible, unlike slaying an orc or dragon.

It can be said that the last two categories of avatar (fantastic vs realistic) are really quite similar, all that’s changed is the outlying structures. In both those cases the onus is on the user to obey the rules and the internal logic, whether that be a realistic representation or exactly the opposite. Without strict abidance to the terms of play, there just is no play, and suddenly your avatar’s appearance becomes a matter of most importance. This is similar to the concept of “Huizenga’s “magic circle” that Williams et al mention:

“Huizenga’s ‘‘magic circle’’ is a socially constructed barrier that exists around games (Huizenga, 1949). Inside the circle, there is a set of rules and norms that makes the game spaces different from everyday life. These rules often include different sanctions on behaviours and a removal of hierarchies. For example, one person hitting another person inside a boxing ring is celebrated, while outside it might be grounds for arrest…” (p.174).

According to Williams, inherent to a successful game is how it breaks down and normalises hierarchies, how it removes one set of rules and introduces its own. I think here is where the appeal of virtual worlds comes from. The atavistic need to hack and hunt didn’t go away, it’s just been sublimated into leisure activities like sports or computer games, where it’s less dangerous and anti-social.


Furie, Mik, “Evolving Character Creation”

Dean, Elizabeth, Cook, Sarah Cook, Keating, Michael and Murphy, Joe,  “Does this Avatar Make Me Look Fat? Obesity and Interviewing in Second Life”

Williams, Dmitri Williams, Kennedy, Tracy L. M., and Moore, Robert J., “Behind the Avatar: The Patterns, Practices, and Functions of Role Playing in MMOs”


5 thoughts on “Digital Humanities Blog Post no.01

  1. Interesting taxonomy, Eoin! I’m wondering how forum avatars fit into your taxonomy (like my old stomping grounds, Gaia Online). Kind of a mix of fantastic and realistic, but completely static and used only to show off the amount of time you’ve spent in the environment (forums, initially, although minigames have been added).


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