Humanizing the Avatar (Part 2: Searching the Virtual for the All-Too-Human)

The Second in a series offering a humanist understanding of virtual world avatars.

Alter-Ego and the Avatar-User Relationship

The need to “humanize the avatar” becomes evident when considering Robbie Cooper’s 2007 photo-essay Alter-Ego: Avatars and their Creators, one of the most theoretically disconcerting engagements involving avatars. Alter-Ego is structured as a series of portraits juxtaposing a photograph of the real user (or in certain cases users) next to a digital screenshot of their “in-world” (a term for being logged into the Second Life [SL] client) avatar. Below the juxtaposed images the user(s) offer explanations and insights into their relationship with their avatar(s). Cooper draws not only from user-generated virtual worlds such as SL, but as well from explicitly role playing virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft. However, there is a definite lack of consistency among the explanations and insights offered by the participants. In his introduction to Alter-Ego, Julian Dibbell, author of the seminal 1993 article “A Rape in Cyberspace”, plays on this lack of coherence, suggesting that it inhibits attempts to claim anything final, or determinative, about avatar use in either MMORPG or MMO metaverse environments such as World of Warcraft or SL. This lack of consistency is evident in my own engagement with SL as well. One friend I met in SL who is deaf in the real world explained that her avatars offered her a body that could, via text chatting, speak. Other users I have befriended claim to use their avatars to experiment with different sexual persuasions or to simply enjoy building and scripting virtual objects.

After perusing Alter-Ego, the question of whether SL exists in the realm of the real or the virtual is no longer intelligible. Note: After all, the “real” portrait and the “virtual” screen-shot are both conventions of representing the self. Neither one is determinatively real or imaginary. This alone suggests that the distinction between “virtual” and “real” is highly problematic. Acknowledging the Hindu significance of the term “avatar”, Dibbell reminds the reader that in spite of feeling a godlike sense of control while inhabiting virtual worlds, “[w]e are no less immune to the seductions of these worlds than the ancient gods of myth were ever safe from ours” (Cooper). As immortal Zeus found himself in thorny situations with mortal lovers, our real, and all-too-human, desires are equally prone to being manifest in virtual worlds: “we fall in love, lust for power and bring our dreams of wealth and fame along with us” (Cooper). Likewise, while a large population of users who are disabled in real life construct alternative bodies in SL, other users construct avatars modeled quite literally on their real selves, blemishes and disabilities included. As Dibbell explains:

“On one hand, for instance, the abundance of powerful, beautiful avatars posed next to glamor-challenged, suburban nobodies seems to argue the proposition that we fly to virtual worlds as a departure from quotidian reality; yet just as striking is the number of avatars shaped to look precisely like the people who play them, suggesting just as forcefully that virtual worlds are better understood as an extension of reality and no escape from it at all” (Cooper)

In light of Cooper’s photographs, then, we can claim that the separation between the real and the virtual is a porous and wafer thin membrane. One Alter-Ego participant, whose SL avatar appears nearly identical to her real world self, explains:

“Most of the time my avatar looks like my real self, but about twenty years younger. I’m jealous of some of her clothes. I made a pair of boots that I wish I could export into real life. I usually dress my avatar in the same sort of stuff I wear. She doesn’t have a separate persona or anything. She’s just an extension of me in this virtual space. Of course, she has a few abilities in SL that I don’t have in my first life…” (Cooper)

Another Alter-Ego participant explains her nearly identical SL avatar, Harmony Harbinger, in the following way: “Harmony is an extension of my real-life self. I see her more like one would see one’s conscience sitting on one’s shoulders” (Cooper). Thus, while one does find, for instance, “furries”, users who adopt animal avatars, or metal-clad cybernetic bounty hunter avatars, many users’ avatars are premised on what they understand to be their real world self.

Methodological Relativism vs. Looking for Something Deeper, Real and All-Too-Human?

In spite of the contradictions that appear throughout Alter-Ego, hinting toward the near impossibility of appealing to a common “gamerly identity”, we can, according to Dibbell, make one positive observation: all the participants in the photo-essay have constructed, in one way or another, an identity, and “play” with that identity (Cooper). It follows that the ways we characterize avatar play should be as unique and diverse as the players themselves. (Likewise, methodologies that work to analyze SL might not work to analyze World of Warcraft, as the rationales for avatar creation differ from one virtual world to the next.) Alter-Ego can be understood as suggesting that each user/player requires a tailor-made theoretical framework. Acknowledging this relativist view, over the the rest of these blog posts I will not be proposing an entirely cut and dried method of theoretical analysis. A truly viable analysis would have to account for a plurality of possible interpretations as rich as the on-and-offline lives of the users themselves. The uses and characteristics of avatars, and indeed virtual worlds themselves, have become as varied as the types of selves one finds in the real world. Furthermore, such methodological relativism inhibits the researcher from characterizing the avatar as located wholly in the register of the imaginary or the register of the real, as either a simulacral body in a nightmarish dystopia or a harbinger of a “friction free” utopia to-come. Both positions assume, in their respective ways, that cyberspace initiates a transubstantiation of the real; one as a corruption (dystopia), the other as a perfection (utopia) of it. Note: In “The Cyberself: the Self-ing Project Goes Online, Symbolic Interaction in the Digital Age” Laura Robinson reminds us that conclusions of cyberculture studies reliant on research done on MUDs are based on early internet users. (Robinson 100) These studies, subsequently becoming paradigmatic of online identity studies, tended to emphasize the imaginary roleplaying dimension of virtual identity construction, a dimension that now describes, according to Robinson, only a very small percentage of internet (and avatar) use. Studies on MUDs, Robinson notes, were conducted before the internet reached a critical mass. As this critical mass was reached, some years after the heyday of the MUD, the architecture of virtual worlds has become far more inclusive. It is becoming clearer that one methodology, oriented toward imaginary role playing, cannot suffice. Theoretical frameworks suitable for analyzing identity construction and play in present day virtual worlds must account for the inconsistent, and multifarious, nature of avatar use and the increasing impossibility of universalizing the phenomenon. 

But there is more than a methodological relativism at issue in Cooper’s photo essay.  Rather than an analysis of the utopian vision of a self “imbued with the freedom and flow of the digital medium itself”, or the dystopian vision of a simulated self “triumph[ing] over the real”, Alter-Ego manages to capture “…something deeper…less liberating and less oppressive, both more social and more playful, and ultimately as real as it gets” (Cooper). Thus, while seeking to challenge the “avatār” of transubstantiation I will ultimately echo this claim that the avatar is deeply revelatory.

A difficult question arises: Is it possible, given the requirement for a plurality of particular methodologies, to conduct an analysis that simultaneously looks through a universal lens for something “deeper”, something that is neither “liberating” or “oppressive” and whose “playfulness” is rendered explicit by virtual worlds? Is it entirely paradoxical to claim that while each user’s relationship to their avatar is a commingling of undeniably unique personal factors, the virtual self – whether identical to the user’s real self, or radically different from it – does not depart from “something deeper”, “real”, and all-too-human? It is not my intention over the next few posts to privilege one of these positions, but to try to find a way to work between them. Thus, I will part ways from an entirely relativist view and suggest that while each user’s avatar is indeed unique and does require a tailor made method of analysis, we must also look to reveal a deeper, all-too-humanness through which each avatar’s uniqueness is inflected.

(Click here to read part 3)


Cooper, Robbie. Alter-Ego. London: Chris Boot Ltd, 2007

Robinson, Laura. “The Cyberself: the self-ing project goes online, symbolic interaction in the digital age” New Media and Society. Vol9(1): 93-110


~ by dccohen on February 28, 2011.

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