Humanizing the Avatar (Part 7: The Human Avatar?)

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

Three kinds of categories emerge in scholarly literature dealing with avatars:
(1) The “Posthuman” Avatar and (1a) The “Posthuman (Capitalist)” Avatar,
(2) The “Performative” Avatar,
(3) The “Human” Avatar and (3a) The “Human (Psychoanalytic)” Avatar.

In this post, I will discuss (3) the “Human” Avatar:

Unlike the “Posthuman” or the “Performative” categorizations, the “Human” category of the avatar describes a type of theoretical engagement focusing on the relation between the real user and her avatar. A good example of this “Human” approach is Don Heider’s article “Identity and Reality: What Does it Mean to Live Virtually?” While Heider acknowledges that SL avatars are evocative of a culture where medical and cosmetic surgery has become sophisticated, accessible and affordable, he does not reduce Second Life (SL) avatars to the drive toward body modification and manipulation (Heider 134). While it is fashionable to address avatar groups of elves, furries, technopunks, human-cat hybrids, etc…, Heider explains that “most people [in SL] are not devoted to” such groupings, and that “people generally create avatars that look much like they do in real life…people overwhelmingly not only chose human forms, they chose human forms that resemble what they report to look like in the real world” (Heider 136). So, while Heider recognizes that identity and selfhood is something fluid and defined by broad cultural changes and conditions, he also, importantly, notes a SL user’s comment that “[there] is a core of who I am that remained consistent. My surroundings did somewhat define me” (Heider 137).

Simulation, for Heider is not simulacral. In contrast to Baudrillard’s fourth order simulacra (which has no relation to any reality whatsoever; it is its own pure simulacrum), Heider argues that SL avatars are intricately tied to a real person (Heider 141). He explains that:

even in cases of people who are serious role-players or pathological liars I would argue that what they say or do is in some way reflective of who they are, what is inside their heads, no matter how distant it may seem from the actual person. It is a reflection of our self, deeper, more profound than real life allows (Heider 141).

The avatar refers back to some “thing”. Heider suggests that avatars provide the “experience of a more profound sense of a person’s identity than we might [have] under normal non-virtual environments…a more acute and profound version of personal identity” (Heider 142). Note: Likewise, in their article “Docile Avatars: Aesthetics, Experience, and Sexual Interaction in Second Life”, Shaowen and Jeffrey Bardzell write of Bondage-Discipline-Sado-Masochism (BDSM) culture in SL as a new interface on a classic taboo (Bardzell and Bardzell 5). Instead of claiming that SL is qualitatively different than real life, they focus on the idea that the brain has always been the largest sex organ. Throughout his work, Žižek makes much of this idea, describing sex as masturbation with a real person. In an interview he explains: “It’s not only that masturbation is having sex with an imagined partner. What if real sex is only masturbation with a real partner? That is to say, you think you’re doing it with a real partner but you use the real partner as a masturbatory device, the real partner just gives you a minimum of material so you can act out your fantasies” (Žižek, “Hysteria”).

One of the most frequently cited studies of avatars, “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behaviour” conducted by Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson is demonstrative of a position that pays keen attention to the relationship between the user’s real/offline and online self-representation. The study aims to better understand the “protean” nature of avatarization in virtual worlds. (The adjective “protean”, meaning versatile, flexible and capable of changing forms, derives from the mythological sea god Proteus who, in Homer’s Odyssey, transformed himself into a myriad of different creatures in order to avoid interrogation. Note: In the fourth book of Homer’s Odyssey, Menalaus exclaims “Then we rushed upon him with a shout and seized him; on which he began at once with his old tricks, and changed himself first into a lion with a great mane; then all of a sudden he became a dragon, a leopard, a wild boar; the next moment he was running water, and then again directly he was a tree, but we stuck to him and never lost hold, till at last the cunning old creature became distressed, and said, Which of the gods was it, Son of Atreus, that hatched this plot with you for snaring me and seizing me against my will? What do you want?’” (Homer 48) Yee et al. spend time in the game World of Warcraft compiling data on the attractiveness of different avatar types and rating them on a scale from least to most attractive. Participants are then provided with these different avatar types to use in other virtual reality environments. Note:  While the participants could see their avatar, the users they interacted with saw a control avatar that was not, given the scale the researchers devised, highly attractive or unattractive. This way the researchers cancelled out social feedback, or “priming”. The type of avatar the researchers provided to each participant affected how the participants acted in the virtual environment. The researchers concluded that “participants assigned to more attractive [in this instance taller] avatars in immersive virtual environments were more intimate with confederates in a self-disclosure and interpersonal distance task than participants assigned shorter avatars” (Yee and Bailenson). Avatars ranked with a high degree of attractiveness walked closer to their confederates and disclosed more personal information to strangers than short avatars did. The study also looked at the effect of online encounters on offline relationships. The researchers “found that participants given taller avatars negotiated more aggressively in subsequent face-to-face interactions than participants given shorter avatars” (Yee, Bailenson and Ducheneaut 2). This research demonstrates that the early cyberculture rhetoric (featured by theorists such as Turkle and Barlow) employing “metaphors of liberation and fluidity” must be complicated or reconsidered in light of the entangled nature of the virtual and physical worlds (Yee, Bailenson and Ducheneaut 39). The Proteus effect explains that our behaviors “shaped by our digital avatars in virtual environments carries over into physical settings” (Yee, Bailenson and Ducheneaut 39). The researchers suggest that “neither the virtual nor the physical self can ever truly be liberated from the other. What we learn in one body is shared with other bodies we inhabit, whether virtual o[r] physical” (Yee, Bailenson and Ducheneaut 39). This study ties the “protean”, flexible, bodies users adopted in virtual worlds to their user’s real, physical, bodies.

In “On the Relationship between My Avatar and Myself” Paul Messinger et al. arrive at similar conclusions, alleging that avatars tend to be similar, but somewhat more attractive, outgoing, risk taking and superficial, than the user understands him or herself to be in real life (Messinger et al. 4). The researchers note that differences between the user and their avatar can be explained by a tendency for computer mediated communication to break down normal behavioural constraints and “deindividuate” the user, causing them “to experience a loss of personal identity and lead[ing] them to behave in ways not normal for that person” (Kiesler et al. qtd. in Messinger et al.).

Another stimulating study of SL, conducted in 2008 by Matteo Varvello et al., monitored public areas of the virtual world and studied the habits of avatars (Varvello et al.). Supporting the conclusions of Yee and Bailensen and Messinger et al., the researchers concluded that avatars act similarly to the way humans act in RL. Avatars tend to gather in small groups of two to ten, visit the same sorts of virtual places as one another, and show highly predictable behaviour. Note: Jamie Loke’s “Identity and Gender in Second Life” raises a similar point: when female SL users are given a choice to become something else, Loke found that the norm was to adhere to the “stereotypical beauty standards of reality” (Loke 146). Varvello et al. importantly also demonstrate that many of the sensationalized media reports about SL purporting it to be an entirely new world are not grounded in fact. According to their study only 30,000 to 50,000 users were active in a given month, only 0.3% of the registered users on SL (Varvello et al. 2). Furthermore, the researchers note that 90% of the time avatars do not move around despite the ability to walk, fly, and teleport (Varvello et al. 2). Most users prefer to chat. Finally, the researchers note that 30% of the SL regions attract no visitors and that the number of concurrent visitors barely reaches 50,000 (Varvello et al. 13). This is not to negate the creative activities that do  occur in SL, but to offer a reminder that these activities are not occurring all the time. Note: In January, 2007 SL became host to a cyber protest against the anti-immigration policies of Jean-Marie le Pen and the French Front National. Avatars from all around the metaverse came together to devise new ways of combating the right wing policies of the movement. A ‘violent’ protest erupted outside the gates of the SL headquarters for the Front National. During the protest the anti Front National protestors levelled digital buildings and created a surreal scene outside the headquarters. There have been a number of SL protests that cross over into the real world, including one against the war in Iraq. Whatever you make of the efficacy of this type of protest…

More theoretically developed expressions of this attempt to humanize the avatar can be located in J. David Velleman’s article “Bodies, Selves” and Tom Boellstorff’s book Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Velleman and Boellstorff attempt to provide theoretical groundwork for the radical inseparability of the virtual from the real. In “Bodies, Selves”, J. David Velleman strives to understand the extent to which the user is their avatar. What is transpiring, he wonders, if a user who is a quadriplegic, exclaims “I ran!” when using an able bodied avatar (Velleman 2)? The common view, he claims, is to regard the avatar as “make believe”, a prop in “pretend play” (Velleman 2). This common view insists that “the agency of the human participant is also fictional” (Valleman 3). Velleman disagrees, arguing that the user’s performance with their avatar is not fictional but, rather, is quite literal.

Playing on the concept of [psycho]analytic transference, Velleman claims that the user “literally performs fictional actions” (Velleman 3). In analytic transference the analyst [A] and the patient [P] may perform “fictional” roles as a parent [p] and child [c]. Note: Velleman himself does not utilize this notion [A,P…]. I have designated the analyst as parent by [Ap] and the patient as child is designated by [Pc]. [Pc] may attempt to “fictionally” seduce [Ap], however [Pc] is really making that attempt, “and really is the agent of that unreal action” (Velleman 3). Thus, actions carried out within the transference are not make-believe, but are “fictional actions literally performed” (Velleman 3). Velleman explains that one has the sense that [P] and [A], as [Pc] and [Ap], really are the selves of the people they are representing. Likewise, he argues that in virtual worlds such as SL the user is “speaking the literal truth when he says of his avatar “this is me” (Velleman 3). Note: But this is not a matter of intent, virtual worlds – governed by ‘virtual play’ are not the same as a child’s game of ‘make believe’ (or ‘pretend play’) (Velleman 4). ‘Virtual Play’ such as SL is not outside the ‘reality principle’ as a child’s game of ‘pretend play’ may be. A user cannot, as a child may, do what whatever she or he pleases. Rather in ‘virtual play’ the user exists in a live, shared, world that is not pretend. For example, if a user wants a pirate ship, they must build, buy, or be given one as a gift. One’s own actions are constrained by their avatar, the interface, and the natural laws that govern the virtual world. “Virtual Worlds”, according to Velleman, are not places we can “conjure up or conjure away” but have a “determinateness and recalcitrance” more like real life.

Kean Kelly the avatar, and the Four Yip portrait:

Velleman claims that within “virtual play” users do not “generally attribute attitudes to their avatars at all; they simply have thoughts and feelings about the world of the game, they act on that world through their avatars but under the motivational force of their own attitudes … players themselves want the items that their avatars buy on their behalf” (Velleman 9). Something radical does not happen to the user and the user does not become something new. Velleman explains that “users don’t experience themselves as artists inventing characters; they experience themselves as the characters, behaving in character, under the impetus of their own thoughts and feelings” (Velleman 10). The avatar is not considered to be an extension that the user controls, but a thing that stands in between, something that the user does things with, or what the user does things as (Velleman 11). It is more a proxy for one’s real body than an extension, or modification, of it.

The user’s own, very real, “beliefs and desires” control the avatar. In virtual play “a person really has a fictional body…but their relationship to that fictional body is real” (Velleman 20 and 13). Like the user’s real body, the virtual avatar “expresses traits, thoughts and feelings conceived of as belonging to…” the user (Velleman 21). Velleman continues:

your body is giving expression to a self-conception, under the control of the one therein conceived as ‘self’. Your body is not just controlled by an inner-spirit; it is used by that spirit to express how it conceives of itself; and so an allusion to its controlling spirit as ‘self’ is implicit in its behaviour (Velleman 22)

For Velleman, the SL avatar is governed by a notion of “self”; it is a fictional, virtual-world body joined to a literal, real-world mind. The personae users adopt in SL, like the patient’s persona as [Pc] and the therapist/analyst’s persona as [Ap], are tied to real motives and intentions.

In Coming of Age in Second Life, Tom Boellstorff explicitly emphasizes that he does not believe online culture warrants a “posthuman” classification. SL, for Boellstorff, is a “profoundly human” space. He claims that, while online culture is not posthuman, virtual worlds are not totally human (Boellstorff, 5). It is not true, he insists, “that there is nothing new under the virtual sun” (Boellstorff 5). In SL, we do find transformed possibilities for subjectivity; we are not quite human. But this does not mean Boellstorff endorses the posthuman?

According to Boellstorff virtual worlds borrow assumptions from real life and show us that our real lives have been virtual all along. For this reason he expresses concern about considering the virtual and the actual through a rigid binarism. The term “virtual” connotes an “approach to the actual without arriving there”. Drawing on Deleuze and Virilio, Boellstorff claims that the virtual “…must be defined as strictly a part of the real object” (Virilio, Vision qtd in Boellstorff 19); (Deleuze, Difference 260 qtd. in Boellstorff 19). As part of the real object, there is an inherent “as if” quality: “a basic starting point for any serious discussion of the virtual must be recognition of the non autonomy of the virtual – a recognition of the fact that the virtual does not constitute an autonomous, independent, or ‘closed’ system, but is instead always dependent, in a variety of ways, on the everyday world in which it is embedded” (Malpas). Boellstorff dwells on the “gap” between the virtual and the actual (Boellstorff 19). If this crucial gap were “…to be filled in, there would be no virtual worlds, and in a sense no actual world either” (Boellstorff 19). In virtual worlds, users are, through “techne”, invited to “open up a gap from the actual and discover new possibilities for human being. At the same time, virtual worlds highlight the virtuality that has always been a part of the human condition. This is why it is mistaken to temporalize this virtual human into the figure of the ‘posthuman’” (Boellstorff 25, 238). Because the virtual and the actual have always been inseparable, Boellstorff does not see SL and virtual worlds like it as technologies which will overcome the limits of the human form. He claims that “forms of selfhood and sociality characterizing virtual worlds “does not necessarily mean the end of the human…we need to see the human re-configured and organized differently” (Nayar 21 qtd. in Boellstorff 28). He summarizes:

The relationship between the virtual and the human is not a ‘post’ relationship where one term displaces the other; it is a relationship of coconstitution. Far from being the case that virtual worlds herald the emergence of the posthuman,…I argue that it is in being virtual that we are human. Virtual worlds reconfigure selfhood and sociality, but this is only possible because they rework the virtuality that characterizes human being in the actual world (Boellstorff 29).

He speaks of “homo cyber” (Boellstorff 29), the virtually human, as comprising (a) forms of human social life emerging (i.e. new subject positions) online, and (b) the way human being has always been constituted – as in the myth of Epimetheus –through technique (or techne).

Boellstorff does not harbour the fantasy that the avatar represents a move beyond, or post-, the human as if there were a stable “I” prior to the immersion of digital technologies into everyday life. He cites Walter Ong: “technologies are artificial, but…artificiality is natural to human beings” (Ong qtd. in Boellstorff). Rather than making sharp distinctions between humans and posthumans Boellstorff recognizes the Epimethean idea that technology alters our “sensory ratios” (Mcluhan 67). This idea of change as endemic to the human offers one half – an Epimethean posthumanism – of a humanist posthumanism.

Boellstorff claims that it is “in being virtual that we are human”. Virtual worlds, and the ability to craft therein, provide new ways for us to define humanity and what it means to be human. Crafting an avatar, “a zone of embodiment that is intentionally crafted – the product of techne – and thus a ‘zone of relationality’ between persons”, is not something that creates an artificial body or extends us into some simulacral posthuman space, but is simply a way of making the virtual environment real (Taylor, Play 41 qtd. in Boellstorff 129); (Weinstone in Boellstorff 129). So, while Boellstorff argues that, “in virtual worlds we can be virtually human, because in them humans, through techne, open up a gap from the actual and discover new possibilities for human being”, he does not highlight posthuman possibilities but, rather, insists that “virtuality has always been a part of this human condition” (Boellstorff 238). Note: He quotes Levy’s comment that “rather than inaugurating the posthuman, virtual worlds make us ‘even more human’” (Levy 216 qtd. in Boellstorff 238). Thus, he defends his position and his anthropological methodology against posthumanists such as Sadie Plant: “It is not that theories of the virtual must shed their anthropocentric associations…virtual worlds draw on a capacity as old as humanity itself, but aspects of selfhood and society within them are novel” (Boellstorff 238). The virtual world of SL is symptomatic of an “age of Techne”. Given that techne is (one of) the thing(s) that makes us human, Boellstorff alleges SL can be studied using anthropology, “the same flexible, underdetermined, ethnographic tools used to study human cultures in the actual world” (Boellstorff 237). Rather than shedding our anthropocentric associations, Boellstorff draws on Turkle and claims that virtual avatars allow us to reflect on what being human can mean (Turkle, Life 24); (Turkle, “Computer”). Note:  Considering avatarization as a version of, rather than differing from, the human is an approach shared by Boellstorff, Heider, Yee and Bailenson, Messinger et al., Varvello et al. and Velleman. For this reason Boellstorff provides an acceptable Epimethean posthumanism that we can factor into our search for a humanist posthumanism.

+Bardzell Shaowen & Jeffrey. “Docile avatars: aesthetics, experience, and sexual interaction in Second Life” HCI…But not as we know it: People and Computers XXI – British Computer Society, 2007
+Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
+Heider, Don. “Identity and Reality”. In Living Virtually: Researching New Worlds.Ed. Don Heider. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Co., 2009 (pp. 130-143)
+Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Samuel Butler. Read Books, 2008
+Kiesler, S., Siegel, J., & McGuire, T. W. “Social psychological aspects of computermediated communication.” American Psychologist, 39:10 (1984): 1123-1134. qtd. in Messinger, Paul R.; Ge, Xin; Stroulia, Eleni; Lyons, Kelly; Smirnov, Kristen; Bone, Michael. “On the Relationship between My Avatar and Myself” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. 1(2) (November 2008)
+Levy, Pierre. Cyberculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. qtd in Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
+Loke, Jamie. “Identity and Gender in Second Life” In Living Virtually: Researching New Worlds. Ed. Don Heider. New York: Peter Lang Publishing Co., 2009 (pp. 141-161)
+Malpas, Jeff. “On the Non-Autonomy of the Virtual” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. 15:2 (2009) 135-139
+Mcluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: Extensions of Man – Critical Edition. New York: Ginko Press, 2003
+Messinger, Paul R.; Ge, Xin; Stroulia, Eleni; Lyons, Kelly; Smirnov, Kristen; Bone, Michael. “On the Relationship between My Avatar and Myself” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. 1(2) (November 2008)
+Nayar, Pramod. Virtual Worlds: Culture and Politics in the Age of Cybertechnology. New Dehli: Sage Publications, 2004 in Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
+Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: The Technologzing of the World. London: Methuen, 1982. in Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
+Taylor, TL. “Living Digitally: Embodiment in Virtual Worlds” in The Social Life of Avatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments. Ed. Ralph Schroder, 40-62. London: Springer-Virlag, 2002 in Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
—. Play Between Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006 in Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
+Turkle, Sherry.  Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007
—. Life on the Screen. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1995
+Velleman, J. David. “Bodies, Selves”. American Imago. vol65:iss3 (2008): 405-246
+Weinstone, Ann. Avatar Bodies: A Tantra for Posthumanism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2004. in Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008
+Yee, Nick and Bailenson Jeremy and Nicolas Ducheneaut. “The Proteus Effect: Implications of Transformed Digital Self-Representation on Online and Offline Behavior.” Communication Research 36:2 (2009): 285-312
+Yee, Nick and Bailenson Jeremy. “The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behaviour” Human Communication Research 33:3 (2007): 271-29
+Žižek, Slavoj. “Hysteria and Cyberspace: An Interview with Slavoj Žižek”. Telepolis. 07.10.1998. <;


~ by dccohen on March 21, 2011.

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