The best part about creating an avatar is that a player has free rein to become whatever or whoever she wishes. Want to become a blue-skinned troll or a pink-haired elf? Want a perfect body without setting foot in the gym? You’ve got it! Want to partake in a love story filled with knights and damsels in distress? Go for it! Limited only by her imagination, a player can create an entire persona that may or may not have anything to do with her reality.
The word “avatar” derives from the Sanskrit word “avatāra,” and translates to “descent.” The term originally referred to the mortal forms assumed by Hindu gods when they descended to Earth. “Avatar” first appeared in relation to video games in 1985, with the release of the role playing game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. In this game, the main character becomes known as the Avatar after following a path of virtues and obtaining a codex of wisdom. Today, avatar is a general term for an in-game persona.
In Alter Ego: Avatars and Their Creators, Robbie Cooper provides side-by-side comparisons of gamers and their avatars, highlighting both the differences and similarities between creator and creation.
With the aid of virtual pixels, Jason Rowe leaves behind his physical restrictions and becomes an agile warrior. In Alter Ego, Rowe says, “The computer screen is my window to the world. Online it doesn’t matter what you look like.” Judged solely by his personality and gaming skills, he feels like he’s on equal footing with everyone else.
Sometimes a player prefers to create an avatar that resembles herself as much as possible. Depending on the game’s customization options, she not only makes her avatar physically similar, she also re-creates her favorite clothes and jewelry. Unlike players who use their avatars to escape real world restrictions, software developer Kimberly Rufer-Bach explained in Alter Egos that she wanted a virtual extension of herself.
Another common aspect in avatar creation is gender-swapping, where male gamers create female characters, or vice versa. Thierry Te Dunne said that Noemi, his avatar, is his “digital spirit, perfectly realized in her striking image. She was not created in a rush or borrowed from someone else, but thought over, polished, cherished.” I’ve met several female gamers who only play as male avatars. They claim that other players seem more apt to follow a male’s advice. Other female gamers say they often feel that male players focus more on creating their characters’ skimpy wardrobes than on developing their gaming skills. Some male gamers I know think that female characters receive more free help and more free gear.
People like me fall somewhere in the middle of all these customizations. This is my character from Final Fantasy XI, a Blue Mage. She’s a standard human female, and I created her on the shorter end of the scale, just like me. However, I did give her black hair and dark eyes, and I made sure to choose a job class that would allow me to both cast magic and wield swords, two things I obviously don’t get to do in real life. Plus, I’ll be honest—I love her wardrobe!
The time a player spends creating his avatar guarantees a deep bond. Some gamers take an extra step and bring their avatar into the physical world. The company FigurePrints, owned by former Microsoft publishing vice president Ed Fries, creates three-dimensional models of World of WarCraft avatars.
What kinds of avatars do you prefer to design? Are your characters direct representations of yourself, or do you take the opportunity to become someone completely different? Share your stories and your pictures with us!