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Avatar (computing)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedi

An avatar (abbreviations include AV, ava, avie, avy, avi, avvie, avis, avies, avii, and avvy) is computer user’s representation of himself or herself, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games,[1] a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities,[2][3] or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. The term “avatar” can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.[4]




In English, the word has come to mean “an embodiment, a bodily manifestation of the Divine.” However, the Sanskrit word Avatara means “the descent of God” or simply “incarnation.” The term is used primarily in Hindu texts. For example, Krishna is the eighth avatar (incarnation) of Vishnu the Preserver, whom many Hindus worship as God. The Dasavatara are ten particular “great” incarnations of Vishnu.

Computer games

As used for a computer representation of a user, the term dates at least as far back as 1985, when it was used as the name for the player character in the Ultima series of computer games. The Ultima games started out in 1981, but it was in Ultima IV (1985), that the term “Avatar” was introduced. To become the “Avatar” was the goal of Ultima IV. The later games assumed that you were the Avatar and “Avatar” was the player’s visual on-screen in-game persona. The on-screen representation could be customized in appearance. Later, the term “avatar” was used by the designers of the role-playing game Shadowrun (1989), as well as in the online role-playing game Habitat (1987).[5]

Neal Stephenson

The use of Avatar to mean online virtual bodies was popularised by Neal Stephenson in his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992). [6] In Snow Crash, the term Avatar was used to describe the virtual simulation of the human form in the Metaverse, a virtual-reality version of the Internet. Social status within the Metaverse was often based on the quality of a user’s avatar, as a highly detailed avatar showed that the user was a skilled hacker and programmer while the less talented would buy off-the-shelf models in the same manner a beginner would today. Stephenson wrote in the “Acknowledgments” to Snow Crash:

The idea of a ‘virtual reality’ such as the Metaverse is by now widespread in the computer-graphics community and is being used in a number of different ways. The particular vision of the Metaverse as expressed in this novel originated from idle discussion between me and Jaime (Captain Bandwidth)Taffe…The words ‘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 to use…after the first publication of ‘Snow Crash’ I learned that the term ‘avatar’ has actually 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

On Internet forums

Example of an avatar as used on Internet forums. Notable features are the small (100x100px) size, text and a border.

Example of an avatar as used on Internet forums. Notable features are the small (100x100px) size, text and a border.

Despite the widespread use of avatars, it is unknown which Internet forums were the first to use them; the earliest forums did not include avatars as a default feature, and they were included in unofficial “hacks” before eventually being made standard. Avatars on Internet forums serve the purpose of representing users and their actions, personalizing their contributions to the forum, and may represent different parts of their persona, beliefs, interests or social status in the forum.

The traditional avatar system used on most Internet forums is a small (96×96 to 100×100 pixels, for example) square-shaped area close to the user’s forum post, where the avatar is placed. Some forums allow the user to upload an avatar image that may have been designed by the user or acquired from elsewhere. Other forums allow the user to select an avatar from a preset list or use an auto-discovery algorithm to extract one from the user’s homepage.

Animated avatar.

Animated avatar.

Some avatars are animated, consisting of a sequence of multiple images played repeatedly (see image to the left). In such animated avatars, the number of images as well as the time in which they are replayed vary considerably.[8]

Other avatar systems exist, such as on Gaia Online or Meez, where a pixelized representation of a person or creature is used, which can then be customized to the user’s wishes.

Forum avatars have been tested as a means of advertising.[9]

In Internet chat

Flat GIF based avatars were introduced by such programs as Virtual Places as early as 1994 along VOIP capabilities which were later abandoned for lack of bandwidth.

In 1995, KeepTalking, a product of UNET2 Corporation, was one of the first companies to implement an avatar system into their web chat software.

In 1995, Cybertown first introduced 3D (three dimensional) avatars to internet chat.[citation needed]

In 1996 Microsoft Comic Chat, an IRC client that used cartoon avatars for chatting, was released.

In instant-messaging programs

AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) was the first popular instant-messaging program to use avatars, picking up on the idea from PC games. Users of AIM commonly refer to avatars as buddy icons. Today, many other popular instant-messaging services support the use of avatars, including Windows Live Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger, and services using the XMPP (Jabber) protocol such as Google Talk, LJ Talk, and Gizmo Project.

Instant messaging avatars are usually very small. AIM icons are 48×48 pixels, although many icons can be found online that typically measure anywhere from 50×50 pixels to 100×100 pixels in size. A wide variety of these imaged avatars can be found on web sites and popular eGroups such as Yahoo! Groups.

The latest use of avatars in instant messaging is dominated by dynamic avatars. The user chooses an avatar that represents him while chatting and, through the use of text to speech technology, enables the avatar to talk the text being used at the chat window. Another form of use for this kind of avatar is for video chats/calls. Some services, such as Skype (through some external plugins) allow users to use talking avatars during video calls, replacing the image from the user’s camera with an animated, talking avatar.[10][11]

AIM buddy icons have been used as an experimental form of viral marketing by some advertising firms.[12]

In blogs

Although blog comment pages can sometimes act like Internet forums, there is no single way to provide avatar support on blogs. One solution is to link to an image file controlled by the user.

In artificial intelligence

Avatars are also used by organisations as a way of interacting with consumers. Some of these avatars are commonly known as “bots” and are powered by Natural Language Processing. Famous examples include Ikea‘s Anna, an avatar designed to guide you around the Ikea website.

Such Avatars can also be powered by a Digital conversation which provides a little more structure than those using NLP, offering the user options and clearly defined paths to an outcome. This kind of Avatar is known as a Structured Language Processing or SLP Avatar.

Both types of Avatar provide a cost effective and efficient way of engaging with consumers.

In games

Avatars in video games are essentially the player’s physical representation in the game world. In most games, the player’s representation is fixed, however increasingly games offer a basic character model, or template, and then allow customization of the physical features as the player sees fit. For example, Carl Johnson, the avatar from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, can be dressed in a wide range of clothing, can be given tattoos and haircuts, and can even body build or become obese depending upon player actions.[13]

Aside from an avatar’s physical appearance, its dialogue, particularly in cut scenes, may also reveal something of its character. A good example is the crude, action hero stereotype, Duke Nukem.[14] Other avatars, such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, who never speaks at all, reveal very little of themselves (in fact the original game never showed the player what he looked like).

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are the source of the most varied and sophisticated avatars. Customization levels differ between games; For example in EVE Online, players construct a wholly customized portrait, using a software that allows for several changes to facial structure as well as preset hairstyles, skin tones, etc. [15]. However, these portraits appear only in in-game chats and static information view of other players. Usually, all players appear in gigantic spacecraft that give no view of their pilot, unlike in most other RPGs

Alternatively, City of Heroes offers one of the most detailed and comprehensive in-game avatar creation processes, allowing players to construct anything from traditional superheroes to aliens, medieval knights, monsters, robots and many more.

Lately, efforts are being made to try to provide the functionality of Universal Avatars or Global Avatars. This means that as much of the general characteristics of an avatar as possible can be shared between virtual worlds. Your appearance, sex, age,… from your avatar in Second Life could then be used in EVE Online for example. If you change your hair colour in EVE Online, it would also change in Second Life. The main goal would be to create a virtual representation of yourself that can travel from one world to another.[16]

In non-gaming universes

Avatars in non-gaming universes are used as two-dimensional or three-dimensional human or fantastic representations of a person’s self. Such representations can explore the virtual universe they are in using their avatar, add to it, or conduct conversations with other users, and can be customized by the user. Usually, the purpose and appeal of such universes is to provide a large enhancement to common online conversation capabilities, and to allow the user to peacefully develop a portion of a non-gaming universe without being forced to strive towards a pre-defined goal.[17]

In non-gaming universes, the criteria avatars have to fulfill in order to become useful can depend to a great extent on the age of potential users. Research suggests that younger users of virtual communities put great emphasis on fun and entertainment aspects of avatars and their practical functionalities (such as whispering). They are also interested in the simple ease of use of avatars, and their ability to retain the user’s anonymity. Meanwhile, older users pay great importance to an avatar’s ability to reflect their own appearance, identity and personality. Most older users also want to be able to use an avatar’s expressive functionalities (such as showing emotions), and are prepared to learn new ways of navigation to do it. Social scientists at Stanford‘s Virtual Human Interaction Lab[18] examine the implications, possibilities and transformed social interaction that occur when people interact via avatars.

Avatar-based non-gaming universes are usually populated by age groups whose requirements concerning avatars are fulfilled. For example, most users of Habbo Hotel, Ty Girlz and Webkinz are aged 10 to 15 years, while users of gaiaonline are 13 to 18. The reason may well be the properties and functionalities of the avatars of these virtual communities. In contrast, There (internet service) and Kaneva Game Platform target users aged 22 to 49 and their avatars allow for a wide range of social interactions, including the expression of emotions: laughing, waving, blowing kisses and rude gestures. The Palace (computer program), most of whose users seem to be older, allows users to use their own images as avatars. This turns the avatar into a direct reflection of users’ real-life appearance, as desired by older users.

Some researchers have suggested that customizable avatars in non-gaming worlds tend to be biased towards lighter skin colors and against darker skin colors, especially in those of the male gender.[19] These observations are less true of Second Life, where avatars range from lifelike humans to more fanciful robots, animals, and mythical creatures, with avatars created by players. The main Second Life grid is open only to adults, and participation is driven by social, artistic and commercial motivations. [20][21]


  1. ^ Lessig, Lawrence. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-03913-8
  2. ^ Fink, Jeri. Cyberseduction: Reality in the Age of Psychotechnology. Prometheus Books, 1999. ISBN 1-57392-743-0
  3. ^ Blackwood, Kevin. Casino Gambling For Dummies. For Dummies, 2006. p.284. ISBN 0-471-75286-X
  4. ^ Jordan, Tim. Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet. Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0-415-17078-8
  5. ^ Morabito, Margaret. “Enter the Online World of LucasFilm.” Run Aug. 1986: 24-28
  6. ^ A Beginner’s Web Glossary
  7. ^ Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam, 2003 (reissue). pp. 469-70.
  8. ^ Designing Isometric Avatars
  9. ^ Marketing Through Avatars
  10. ^ Skype Extras
  11. ^ Skype Extras
  12. ^ Coldplay’s US Tour: The Results Are In
  13. ^ IGN: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
  14. ^ Duke Nukem 3D
  15. ^ Designing Isometric Avatars
  16. ^ BBC NEWS | Technology | Universal avatars bestride worlds
  17. ^ Damer, Bruce. Avatars: Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. Peachpit Press, 1997. ISBN 0-201-68840-9
  18. ^ VHIL: Virtual Human Interaction Lab – Stanford University
  19. ^ Nakamura, Lisa. Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-93836-8
  20. ^ http://www.realtimearts.net/article/80/8662 Dance Film: Spiritual Odyssey, RealTime 80, August-September 2007.
  21. ^ http://www.slnn.com/article/thursdays-fictions/ Experience the next life at Thursday’s Fictions, Second Life News Network.

Academic Research/Work on Avatars

Wood, Natalie T, Michael R. Solomon and Basil G. Englis (2005) “Personalization of Online Avatars: Is the Messenger as Important as the Message?” International Journal of Internet Marketing and Advertising, 2 (1/2), 143-161.

See also


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