Avatars are defined as virtual representations that are controlled by a human user. Commonly, we observe avatars in video and online games, social networking sites, and virtual worlds. This chapter explores the use of avatars in the expression, exploration, and evolution of users’ identities, both online and offline. Theoretical explanations for the creation, manipulation, use, and effects of avatars are offered, including identification, transformed social interaction, and the Proteus effect. The adoption of avatars for identity expression, exploration, and change is discussed, including Turkle’s notion of fragmented selves and Nakamura’s concept of identity tourism. Research that has investigated the effects of avatars on self-perceptions and identity in various domains (such as health, marketing, finance, and environmental behaviors) is addressed. Implications and future directions for research in this area are discussed.
The word avatar is adapted from the Sanskrit for “descent,” used to describe a Hindu god emerging from the heavens and bodily manifesting itself in order to intervene in human affairs. Generically, the term avatar can refer to any representation of a person. Names, online profiles, and dolls can all be considered types of avatars by this broad definition (Bailenson & Blascovich, 2004). Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson’s (1992) science fiction novel, popularized the use of the word as it is commonly understood today, to describe a digital representation in a virtual environment.
Avatars and the virtual spaces they inhabit have transformed our ability to express and explore identity, yielding effects both on- and offline. Avatars enable users to “intersect with a technological object and embody themselves, making the virtual environment and the variety of phenomena it fosters real” (Taylor, 2002, p. 41). Embodying an avatar is a recursive identity process; each time users enter the virtual world, they are testing the affordances of their online selves. The fluidity of virtual representations and virtual environments has encouraged new interpretations of identity. Indeed, Turkle (1995) noted that: “Traditional ideas about identity have been tied to a notion of authenticity that such virtual experiences actively subvert” (p. 185). Avatars offer a unique way for users to portray facets of their identities, explore their wishful identities, and change aspects of their identities both offline and online. This chapter seeks to explore these processes as well as the theoretical processes that drive these experiences.
Avatar As Self-Representation
Virtual spaces give us the opportunity to selectively portray the self. Whether on a social networking site or an online gaming platform, we use avatars to represent ourselves. Nakamura (2002) argued that the use of graphical, visual avatars in place of text-based names and description creates a new domain and social experience online. Even with the freedom to represent ourselves as we choose, avatars require us to make selections on what features we portray and gives others visual substance through which they can make quick judgments (Kolko, 1998). Thus, our avatars are evaluated by the same appearance-based criteria we are first judged upon in offline settings (Weibel, Stricker, Wissmath, & Mast, 2010). Users may choose how they appear to others in a virtual environment. Sometimes users are limited to an assortment of characters; in other environments, avatars may be customized from head to toe (or horn to claw, depending on the body they select; Nowak & Rauh, 2006). The mere process of customization empowers the user to make specific decisions on how they wish to appear to others (Boellstorff, 2008; Taylor, 2002). The ability to design and customize an avatar, combined with the time spent using the avatar, leads users to often develop a strong affinity for an avatar (Lim & Reeves, 2009; Yee, 2006).
Key Terms in this Chapter
Proteus Effect: A form of transformed social interaction wherein the user’s self-representation is modified in a meaningful way and subsequently the user’s behavior conforms to the modified self-representation regardless of the true physical self.
Embodiment: When a user feels that he or she is experiencing an environment within a virtual body.
Identification: The process in which an individual relates to a model (e.g., an avatar) and feels that s/he is similar to the model, which may yield social influence and imitation of the model.
Transformed Social Interaction: Communication that is modified through the unique affordances of virtual technologies.
Doppelgänger: A digital representation, which may be an avatar or an agent, that is designed to photorealistically resemble a user.
Avatar: A digital representation controlled by a human user.
Virtual Environment: A digital space in which a user may interact with virtual objects.