It used to be that when you mentioned the word or idea of an avatar people immediately assumed you were referring to a pretend character in a virtual world, which you used to role-play a different version of yourself. Then they assumed you were referring to that James Cameron film or the odd animation with the boy that could control the elements. All three are valid connections to make, but in our modern world the old Hindi word takes on a far more elaborate meaning.
Avatars are essentially an alternate or an extended identity upon the one we would assign as the prime identity. Traditionally we would have various “masks” if you will in our various dealings with various people and groups. Then the avatar was created as an extension of those masks in a virtual world. But the avatar is no longer consigned to just the realm of gaming anymore, but rather expands across every digital platform that we choose to inhabit. From gaming communities to social media networks, to gamified environments (such as the basic loyalty programs, or your LinkedIn profile, or Amazon profile).
This does highlight an interesting query though, is a profile an avatar? In my opinion, no. They do have similarities, but they are not the same. A profile is a simplified version of an avatar. I believe that the concept of an avatar is one where a profile has transcended its base function on the platform it is used. A profile is restrictive as it only offers a minimized reflection of yourself, it has no deeper connection beyond containing a name, a picture and some data about you. Whereas the avatar grants a level of personalization to it that gives you, the user, a stronger visio-emotional connection in the virtual environment in which you choose to create that incarnation of yourself.
The idea of the avatar also fulfills a want in every human, and that is they want to pretend and imagine. In games, we can be fantastical beings, but even in social media we choose specific things on our “profiles” and that is why I would say these have transcended to avatars. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc… have gamified the platform to a point where we can try-out versions of our-self that we want others to see and/or believe. And each variation has a different connection to a part of our identity.
Avatars and identity shards
I quite like the idea that an avatar is a shard of your identity, that it is an aspect of you that you use to project yourself in a new world and use to understand that new world. It is for this reason that an avatar is a fairly powerful mechanic to use when trying to learn or teach. An avatar or an alternate identity creates links in learning and comprehension that are far more efficient than if they were done in a more direct fashion. When using an avatar, the experience becomes a sort of internalized vicarious one, that is somehow at once both removed but still personal to you. It, therefore, creates a better and more effective cognitive understanding in an individual than if they were to try and interact and learn directly. As James Paul Gee expresses it “The projective identity is the space in which learners can transcend the limitations both of the virtual identity and the learners own real-world identity.” (2007, pg. 63)
In part, this ability to slip in with ease using an avatar is due to the psychological perspective that an avatar allows a player to start with a clean slate in the environment that they’ve entered. But that they still have all the inherent knowledge that they’ve accumulated in their lives. This clean slate is then ubiquitous with everyone, no-one has an unfair advantage as it were due to socio-economic reasons. Beyond knowledge, all avatars are equal, no biases or prejudices. This is especially clear with fully functional avatars in video games, specifically MMO’s; “Video games recruit identities and encourage identity work and reflections on identities in clear and powerful ways.” (J.P. Gee, 2007, pg. 46). The player not only visually connects with the avatar in these worlds, but they start to emotionally connect. The player is actively building a parallel history with the character in that environment. Creating memories with it, being it and injecting it with their own hopes and dreams of what they wish to achieve in and outside that environment. (J.P. Gee, 2007, pg. 62).