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Jun 23, 2006



Ahhhhh.... feh. Methinks you're just asking for some comment goo.

We have plenty of social situations where there is "no avatar" to speak of; email, many IM servers, phones, chat rooms, bulletin boards, blogs, web sites, comments, etc. It's either just text or just voice.

And some of the same issues you raise r.e. avatars are identical in real life (just as some of the problems with text chat are identical to those of live conversation). We meet (or some of us do) many people in real life and give them naught but a glance. Why? They don't register as anything but "that guy with the big hat," or "the lady from Finance who delivers the expense reports," or "the dude who sells me my Starbucks." Were you expecting an avatar experience from "South Pacific?":

Some enchanted server,
You may see an avatar,
You may see an avatar
Across a crowded sim.
And somehow you know...
You know even then,
That somewhere you'll see her/him/it
(You can't tell)
Again and again (as soon as she/he it rezzes).

Would it be "different" to be repped by an iron, dog, pig, hat, spaceship, blob of bouncing light? Sure. I did a stint in SL as a pure-blue avatar, no details, no bling, just pants-and-shirt (also blue), in order to see what kind of reaction I'd get as a "not very special" guy. It really didn't change much. People's reaction was still based mostly on what I said to them and how I reacted to what they said. So... not sure about how it would change if I'd been a billiard ball.

Is the tie dead as a metaphor? The high-heeled shoe? The mustache? The sports car? The handshake, thumbs-up, wink, nod, door-man, chandelier, analog watch, velvet rope, drink umbrella? We're waaaaay to young in this genre to start talking about anything being dead, IMHO. In need of constant upgrading and improving? Sure. Exprimenting? Rock on.

Dead? C'mon... suggesting that thigs are "dead" is so dead.


Nate asked:

How can the degrees of freedom available to avatar design be anything but noise in the statistics of a sea of toons?

The thing that is interesting here is the game of playing for social capital by creating a more interesting persona - by leveraging the available tools cleverly enough to create not just an avatar, but an entire world-facing entity (including the avatar, the backstory, the dwelling, etc)... it becomes a quality argument. Would we mind so many peacocks if they were all well-dressed, cleverly-concocted peacocks, or is it bothersome because the bar for mediocrity has just been raised slightly to include 'square jaws, pinched jaws, pug noses, pink lips, blue hair, and epic tattoos' applied indiscriminately and with a less than fully-evolved aesthetic? Within worlds with truly flexible character customization options (like CoH, for instance), my experience has been one of utter delight at times, seeing the personas that emerge from the basic options provided... randomly running into some very beguiling toon on the street whose avatar and name along tell a whole story about the person's pop cultural frame of reference/sense of humor/cleverness, etc. I'd be sad to see that go.


Andy: We have plenty of social situations where there is "no avatar" to speak of; email, many IM...

Your email address is your avatar.


I'd suggest that if an 'avatar' doesn't literally represent the person driving it, it's actually just a good old 'character' or 'role.' Why do we need new jargon (new usage of an old word, anyway) to represent that age-old concept? We have a tradition of storytelling, improv, and role-playing to draw on.

Why is 'avatar' better than 'ghost' or 'loa' or any spiritually-derived term, unless the point is to also convey that in reality, there is some 'user' driving our physical bodies from outside, which, true or not, is way overloading the term, IMO.

I'd also suggest that even if the avatar does represent, as much as is practical, the person driving it, we can come up with some more descriptive term to convery the intended surrogacy and the quality of reflection.


Some enchanted server,
You may see an avatar,


Is the tie dead as a metaphor?

As metaphor for 16th century England... yes. Uniform for white-collar worker... no.

We're waaaaay to young in this genre to start talking about anything being dead


People's reaction was still based mostly on what I said to them and how I reacted to what they said. So... not sure about how it would change if I'd been a billiard ball.

If the content of personality is all that matters and if virtual looks count for zero, why the concern and why then the peacock act?

experience has been one of utter delight at times, seeing the personas that emerge from the basic options provided... randomly running into some very beguiling toon on the street whose avatar and name along tell a whole story about the person's pop cultural frame of reference/sense of humor/cleverness, etc. I'd be sad to see that go.

So everyone is a character actor in a cast of thousands. Fine so far. But noone can act, at least to the characters painted on their toons - not for any duration anyway. And if they could wouldn't they then share an even greater likeness to the NPC? Cast of thousands ... of what?

Your email address is your avatar.

Esp.if there were an archive against which one could correlate that address against all past messages I wrote - content is character.


Semantics is fun! And funny.

Until Second Life, I never thought of game representations as avatars, period. The word hadn't entered my vocab. Even after SL, which I played before WoW, I never really thought of my on-screen representation in World of Warcraft as my avatar. It was a character I played. I wasn't able to imbue it with enough of my personality to really confer upon it the status that I felt "avatar" endowed.

Going back... I never thought of any of the pewter figures that I painted when playing pen-and-paper RPGs as avatars either. I never thought of checker disks, the little top hat, chess pieces, cards, my email address, my signaure, my personal checks, my license plate, my driver's license, my finger-print, my DNA, a voice-mail I left 8 years ago on Sean Kelly's answering machine or a cartoon of myself that I drew on a napkin at McGraw's in Philly as avatars, either. But all of those things are, to one degree or another, "temporary manifestations or aspects of a continuing entity" -- i.e., me. Which is the dictionary defintion of "avatar."

So, yeah. Sure. My email address is my avatar. So's my car. But that's not what we're talking about here, is it?

I am often struck by both the poetry and the prosaic glop that is available in any artistic form. But we do not seek to ban poetry because, for instance, we do not like the work of Poet A. Nor do we discuss banning music because The New Kids on the Block just suck so, so much. I have seen avatars in SL that take my breath away with their charm and subtltly; with their mashing of various styles that,in RL, simply would not work but, in the VW setting... simply... do. I have seen other noobs who walk around, sometimes for months if you check their rez date, with the same starter avie that we all get. Maybe with a bit bigger chest. OK...

"Content is character," says Nate. I agree. On the one hand, some of the most charming, lovely, sophisticated avies I've seen have then gone and open them dad'gum chat-boxes and texted out the most innane drivel you've ever seen. Mama may have said that "Stupid is as stupid does..." But in SL, there's some damn pretty folks with some really bad grammar, poor typing skills, tiny vocabularies and the conversational abilities of tin can recycling stations. Hoo-chee! Woot! On the other hand, I've had absolutely fascinating conversations with some very plain (looking) furries, with techno warriors, Jedi, a very fat Buddha looking guy with a tiny head and a dude who looked as much like Jerry Garcia as you can in SL and still be legal.

Here's my question for the campers -- how much of the design (or purchase?) and decision and show of one's avatar is part of the content? Part of the "character?" Does the avie make the man? I've known a lot of suit-and-tie wearing assholes, and I've had a lot of really great T-shirt and jeans wearing friends. And vice versa. Are there valid "communicative" statements being made with avatars?

I'd say "Yes," in many cases. Take my email addresses for example. Or the handles of how we comment on this blog. Several folks here use folksy, "gamey" pen names. I'm not making a judgement, just noticing. I, however, always use my real name. And all my email addresses (unless I'm doing a "webmaster@" gig) are always related to my real name. Is that a "content clue" about my character? You decide.

Is it a "content clue" if I see to avies in SL walking around and one has the other on a leash? What if one is made up to be so grotesquely ugly as to be almost unbearable to look at? I've seen that. I mean, hideously deformed. Yucko. There are lots of "7's 8's and 9's" wandering around SL, for sure. But it takes real work to push the envelope and be a "1" or a "10."

I like just sitting (when the lag ain't too bad) and watching the avies go by. Virtual people (and other) watching at its finest. I like the clothes, the tatts, the weirdness. Even if more than half of the people are fetishizing standard, RL beauty and Cosmo body-types. OK. This is what folks are wearing inside their heads. And I get to look at it. How cool is that? Bring it on. Bring on more.

And, while you're at it, get somebody in SL to work on better shoes. How can they have such good hair, and such lousy shoes? Feh.


Right on Andy! But one of the main reasons that I too have been unable to identify my toon as an avatar is the inability for timely facial reactions in other toons. I personally have designed (I think) a beautiful toon in EQ2 but her facial expression like all the other toons are wooden they are unable to express the emotions of the players which they represent. This limitation of course is a technological one and will most likely be addressed sooner or later. But until I have the ability to control my toons body language in any sort of realistic way I personally will find it hard to identify my toon as an avatar. He is more like the race car in Monopoly merely an object signifying my presence in the game.
As to your SL comment I totally agree they need to do something about those shoes. And there are some beautifully horrid toons out there but SL is a special case as most VW games don’t let you have so much control over character appearance.
I personally would like to design some new armor for my toon in EQ2 but my ability to do so is severely limited to what Sony has deemed appropriate. There would be a serious market for personally designed gear in EQ2 as it would become a status symbol of sorts to have gear that was not only powerful but whose look was unique to that particular item.


Todd: Facial expressions are very, very tough. Yes. I had one avatar in SL, though, that for some reason... well... I'm not ashamed to admit I was in absolute love with the face she made when she stuck out her tongue. It was an anim that I picked up from a buddy, and it involved a scrunched up face, a wee bit of a pout, and the aforementioned jutting. It communicated exactly the "Oh, pooh!" expression that I was looking for, and I used it only for that. She also had a good, wry smile.

I never found, however, a good laugh gesture for her. All the laugh animations I found made her look like a 9th grade, amateur drama kid in the Jr High play doing a pirate chortle. Ah-HA! Yo-ho-ho! Chortle, chortle, chortle.

I saw another fellow with a great "hand-on-head, shake with exasperation" look. I coveted it. He would not give over. And so... there was tongue sticking.

I am enough of a Photoshop guru to make my own tatts. I did some prim clothes. And I own (due to some past biz ventures) a copy of Poser... but try as I might, face animation is beyond my ken. Even the few dance moves I tried to program for SL, well... Let's just say I should probably stick to tatts and poetry. Or maybe just tatts. Or marketing. Or walking my dog.


When you say "the death of the avatar", are you talking death in a real-world sense, or death in a virtual-world sense?

>A metaphor dies when it ceases to communicate its original novelty, becoming a cliche

That would seem to apply to the word "death" here?



When you say "the death of the avatar", are you talking death in a real-world sense, or death in a virtual-world sense?

That would seem to apply to the word "death" here?

Consider it in the sense of kitsch that disappears.

Okay 'death' is a tad melodramatic here - but it sounds more interesting than 'uncorrelated.' The greater the distance separating a graphical avatar from truthfully (or somehow relevantly) depicting the human actor behind it - well, isn't that separation measurable as noise added to the channel? If a vanity, a loud one at that.


Nate! Nate! My friend! What are you saying???

"The greater the distance..." Noise? Vanity? Oh, Nate! When I put on a hat, do I do it to keep my head warm, hide my messy hair (or a bald spot), to display team colors or to simply show off my funky hat of which I am so proud? Some combo? Can it be different on different days? Can I have several hats for different occasions?

Am I no longer allowed a hat when others wear them for different reasons than I?

Not counting "starter" avies in SL, that I played with just to get the hang of it, I have messed around seriously with about six radically different avatars. Why? To test the vanity. To make noise. To see what the different reactions are. To play. I like SL mostly for the conversations with folks who are immersed in design, VWs, games, and separation anxiety from RL. You get different start-up conversations with different avies and different approaches.

As a leather-clad, pink-haired, fey, petite, tattooed, multiply pierced, 25ish-year-old woman who came across as very polite yet, "Sorry... not interested in taking your s**t," I got very different reactions than I did as an old, fat, Buddha who joked all the time, non-stop, about everything. Characters. Parts to play. Why? It's a game. The avie is part, the dialogue is part, the animations, the contsructions, the rules, the cheating (if we get into all that again...), the inter/interactions (grouping), etc. Why is my avatar choice a "separate" issue from whether or not I choose to use proper grammar, capitalizating and spelling when typing (which I did as Buddha), but did not do in other guises?

Noise and vanity. If that ain't a decent definition of 50% of what makes games fun, I'll eat my prim hat.


> Noise and vanity. If that ain't a decent definition of 50% of what makes games fun,

Heh, great point Andy. No disagreements. But here is the rub - what does this say about the avatar as a focal point for online identity? If it is just tomfoolery, fine, but why pretend there is more there? Or conversely, if there should be more there, look for means of more closely coupling the two.


Nate: In the words of the Blues Brothers -- "Whaddya want for nothin? Rubber biscuit?" [note... I have no idea what that means. I am sleep deprived and high on cough meds at the moment]

How closely the "mode" of the avatar and the focal point for online identity should be tied depends on the purpose of the avatar in the situation. Same for any communicative measure.

I use metaphor, for example, all the time. But at various levels. If I want a wee bit of salt in my soup, I can get away with saying, "I'd like a pinch of salt. Just a pinch." If I'd like a bit more, I should probably say something like, "This soup's real shy on the salt." Both are metaphors. To be non-metaphoric, I'd need to go with, "Please add 1/4 teaspon of salt per cup of soup," or "1/2 teaspoon" or whatever.

However, if I push the metaphoric thing too far, and say that, "This soup lacks salt as the highway lacks ardor for country-ways and wars lack time for rest and thoughtful naps."

Er... OK. That's a metaphor, too. And maybe one we could use in a poem sometime. But it ain't gonna get me "a little salt" vs. "a bit more."

My point is that avatar tools can be similarly misused or well placed. In a free-form world like SL, where social contact and context is a big deal, then, yes... the links between the variety and subtlty of vissage and action and what you want to convey are hugely important. In a fantasy MMO, though, it's probably more important to be able to quickly identify the nature and intention of PCs/NPCs. If I have to stop and tell if your eyebrow raising indicates friendliness before I light you up... well, I'm probably a-gonna die.

What do YOU WANT the avatar to do for you? Communicate social subtltly as well and quickly and frankly and with as much finesse as the human face? If that happens... you end up with the same problem in VR that we have in RL... certain folks (like us actors and marketers) are really, really good liars. So... the better an avatar is at being like us, the better we can use it to be... like us?

Not only that, but I can ask someone who is *better than me* at lying to do it for me through programmed animation.

Again... that great conundrum... can you play a character that's smarter than you are? Can you spin an avatar that is more charming? More artful? More interesting?


Yeah, I think you could say "avatar" is a "dead metaphor" in this sense (although what it represents is by no means dead). I doubt that most players even know its original meaning, not that they should.

I first came across the term playing Ultima IV on my Apple IIe. It's interesting to see how its usage has changed (in the context of games) with Stephenson and MMOs. The idea that the being who is manifested is "godly" or at least "virtuous" has been dropped entirely. Now any old schlep can be an avatar.

This linguistic phenomenon also reminds me of another one, the transformation of brand names into verbs or generic nouns: to xerox, to google, to hoover, etc.

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