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An avatar is essential for interactions "inworld" & in Second Life ...
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  • Updated.jpg This entry is out of date, and will not be updated, February 2018


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According to Wikipedia, "...an avatar is the graphical representation of the user or the user's alter ego or character. It may take either a three-dimensional form, as in games or virtual worlds, or a two-dimensional form as an icon in Internet forums and other online communities. Avatar images have also been referred to as "picons" (personal icons) though use of this term is uncommon now. It can also refer to a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. The term "avatar" can refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user..."

"Avatars" are representations of individuals and can be cartoon-like (see above right) or simple thumbnail photos. In both instances, cartoons and photos are the digital stand-ins for people online, and are meant to be representative (but not always) and to some extent performative. In virtual and immersive environments, avatars may embody a fully fictional view of someone, and can appear as the user wishes, and used to move about and interact with other avatars. The first use of the word “avatar” to describe online personae was in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snowcrash. The word’s origin is Sanskrit (avatara) meaning a descent of a god or goddess from heaven to earth. As the definition of “avatar” has changed from the Sanskrit, it has also expanded; initially, it referred to two-dimensional images that identified users on message boards in the early Internet days. At that time, the graphics were literal presentations of users (personal photos) or images that captured the user’s personality, interests or beliefs. As immersive environments have taken hold, “avatar” has come to imply three-dimensionality. Avatars in 3D are obviously capable of more detail and customization than their 2D predecessors. Generally, an avatar can be created according to your wishes, and are then used to represent you in chat, instant messaging (IM) or multiplayer games. Your avatar can be cartoon or caricature-like or a completely unrelated, unrealistic representation of yourself. It can be simple or a wild fantasy. Nintendo's Wii allows for the creation of an avatar called a "Mii" which is a stylized, cartoon-like avatar. In some games, the ability to use a Mii must be unlocked, such as in Mario Kart Wii. Microsoft's Xbox360 also features avatars. In immersive games, an avatar is a digital persona used to represent yourself in the digital world. On children's gaming sites, you can be a unicorn, bluebird or other object. It's virtually impossible to use social media regularly and not know about avatars. Avatars say a lot about your psychological and emotional commitment to an online persona.

Create and express your own persona

In many immersive environments, you can create and customize your own digital persona in three dimensions (3D). Often, while registering at these new sites, you are given options to select from a range of free avatars in order to create your own individual person or character. Thousands of unique clothing, hair and fashion accessories can be found in these digital worlds. You can even browse the web for avatars; in Second Life you can shop at a secure shopping site called Xstreet SL.

Literary origins

The use of avatar in the 1992 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash described a virtual simulation of the human form. This simulation occured within a metaverse, a fictional virtual-reality application on the Internet. Social status in the metaverse was based on the quality of a user's avatar, as a highly detailed avatar shows that a user is a skilled hacker and programmer. Less talented computer hackers buy off-the-shelf model avatars in the same manner beginners do today. Stephenson says in the "acknowledgments" of his novel that: "The idea of a 'virtual reality' such as the Metaverse is now widespread in the computer-graphics community ...the Metaverse as expressed in this novel originated from idle discussion between me and Jaime (Captain Bandwidth)Taffe ...'avatar' (in the sense used here) and 'Metaverse' are my inventions, which I came up with when I decided that existing words (such as 'virtual reality') were simply too awkward... after the first publication of 'Snow Crash' I learned 'avatar' had been in use for a number of years as part of a virtual reality system called 'Habitat'...in addition to avatars, Habitat includes many of the basic features of the Metaverse as described in this book."

Why use them?

Avatars provide options for reluctant public speakers:

Medical studies

  • In one 2012 study by Andrade et al, 128 US medical students were randomized into one of four animated videos of avatar physician-patient counseling sessions. Investigators varied the weight and skin color of an elderly avatar: white-thin, black-thin, white-obese and black-obese. The results suggested that medical students viewed obese avatars who were white as unattractive, noncompliant, lazy and sloppy. Their comments suggested a condescending attitude towards avatars. Avatar-mediated experiences can elicit bias enabling medical educators to implement bias reduction techniques for students. A nursing study from 2011 (Evans et al) examined the art of conflict management and whether it could be taught through the use of Second Life®. With class time and traditional opportunities for teaching conflict resolution in such short supply, a virtual approach to teaching was explored with mixed results.


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