Avatars in Virtual Worlds

Beyond slaying dragons and collecting gold there is a deeper level of interaction in MMORPGs revolving around personal identity and self-comfort – and it’s facilitated by a relationship between the gamer and their avatars. Intrigued? Let’s take a look...

Feature by Santini Basra | 28 May 2015
  • Avatars in Virtual Worlds

In our day-to-day lives we find ourselves restricted in so many ways – what we look like, the money in our pocket, where we live, who we work for, our social connections, the laws of physics – but there are places where these restrictions do not apply: virtual worlds. While there are many different spaces that constitute virtual worlds, some of the most well-known worlds are those from MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) such as World of Warcraft, Second Life and Guild Wars. To inhabit these worlds, players must create avatars. Usually an avatar is just a tool to allow a gamer to enter and interact with the virtual world, but in some cases, an avatar’s function can develop beyond this. Especially within socially driven games, it can happen that a gamer develops an emotional connection with his or her avatar and the avatar starts functioning on a deeper level than originally perceived, unlocking certain social behaviours that lie dormant within a gamer.

In many cases, as beautifully documented in Robbie Cooper’s book Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators, these avatars can act as secret identities for their gamer: office assistant by day, flying panda by night – guardian of the virtual realm. The word itself – avatar – hints at this use, it originates from Sanskrit, and originally referred to the descendant of a deity.

In these cases the avatar is allowing the gamer access to basic simulations of experiences that they would never otherwise come across. Quotes such as “my avatar looks like my real self, but about twenty years younger” and “I decided to make a superhero reflecting my inner self, so I created La Blonde, the supra super heroine” are common within the book; in these cases the avatar and its respective powers replace something the gamer feels he or she is lacking. Nick Yee, a social scientist at Ubisoft who used to be a research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Centre mentions this effect: “People with a higher body mass index – likely overweight or obese – create more physically idealised avatars, which are taller or thinner.”

While typically these ‘powers’ fall into the archetypes of the superhero – super speed, flight, strength, death rays and all the rest – occasionally the power that is afforded by the avatar is seemingly much more mundane, like the ability to talk anonymously, the ability to change your appearance, the ability to act without repercussions: what we might call social superpowers. These banal and outwardly everyday abilities, afforded by the avatar, have resulted in the avatar being utilised by certain gamers (perhaps unconsciously) for more serious issues.

The ability to be anonymous in an MMORPG allows for a whole range of expression (which normally would be repressed) to be explored through an avatar. This anonymity is also true of many areas of the internet generally (think of 4chan and Reddit), however with the addition of an avatar – a semi-tangible form – often these expressions can be more complex.

"Virtual worlds allow you to experiment and perform actions that you would otherwise be incapable of in the real world"

On one level, the avatar affords the ability to remove real-world visual stimuli, thus personality can take a more important role than image, and one can see that in certain scenarios this may have a large effect. For example those who are often visually stigmatised, such as the disabled, can overcome that boundary and experience social interaction online in a virtual space, judged only on personality. One disabled gamer within Cooper’s book illustrates this well: “I have a lot of physical disabilities in real life, but in Star Wars Galaxies I can ride an Imperial speeder bike, fight monsters, or just hang out with friends at a bar.”

Beyond this, culturally or socially repressed behaviours and views are often expressed in games, and while these may often result in racist or sexist comments, in other cases you may – as one gamer I spoke to suggests – have more liberating experiences: “Virtual worlds allow you to experiment and perform actions that you would otherwise be incapable of or not permitted to (socially or legally) in the real world. Where under one culture certain actions might not be permitted – such as a devout Muslim woman showing her face in public – here she would have been able to build an avatar similar to herself or how she wants to be represented, and experience this despite it not being permitted among her culture.” Other such examples can be found in the exploration of sexual orientation and even gender identity. Especially in early life when one might be unsure about their personal preferences on these matters, the virtual world can be a safe place to experiment, expose and understand sometimes latent desires and thoughts.

One gamer named Danielle talks about her experiences in World of Warcraft as a teen, and how her experiences in the world with her avatar prompted her to transition: “The biggest thing of immeasurable value was getting to have a part of my life where I was referred to by a female name and female pronouns. There was something for me about that that was instantly comforting, something that highlighted how much male pronouns bothered me in my daily life outside of World of Warcraft.”

Although she was male at the time, for some reason unknown to her she chose to create a female avatar, and through interacting online via this avatar she started to have realisations about social discomforts in her day-to-day life. She goes on to talk about how her avatar helped shape her female identity after transitioning: “I had several different characters in the game, meaning I could decide which one I felt like playing on any given day and know that that would affect what people called me. One of the names I used for a while in Warcraft was a high fantasy variation on Danielle that, along with some other experiences experimenting with the name, led to me deciding to stick with Danielle as my name in the real world going forward.”

Danielle’s case is a clear example of an avatar’s ability to expose, explore and personify a latent desire in a space that is relatively safe. Not only are you interacting behind the veil of anonymity, but also you are in a world that is completely abstracted from your own. World of Warcraft, as with most other MMORPGs, unwittingly manages to disguise many of these raw interactions behind the rich narrative of slaying dragons and collecting gold. Another Warcraft player, Gary, mentions the absurdity of this: “The dichotomy of it is hilarious. The other day this guy I was talking to was an electrician, and we were talking about being an electrician versus going to college. He and I were having this long two-hour conversation about going to college and the merits of not going to that sort of organisation, as we were running around with swords fighting goblins.” This high-fantasy veil provides a platform to abstract many issues, and explore them unconsciously through a long period of time in the background.

While such modes of social interaction can be extremely positive, there is a fundamental issue: the huge gap between virtual worlds and day-to-day life. Danielle mentions that World of Warcraft became a safe space for her, but that “it’s tough to convince yourself to leave a place you feel is more comfortable that the world around you.” While many positive and enriching forms of interaction can occur, there is little scope for behaviour, online identity and social comfort to transfer from the virtual world to the physical world.

Ultimately the question that must be asked is: is this a phenomenon that should just be left alone, or should some of the larger game companies recognise the unique explorative qualities of the worlds that they have created – and in the interest of social responsibility, find some way of providing support to their players?