On the Origins of Avatars

How much do avatars influence our behavior?

Updated: Thanks to several commenters, I’ve updated the piece to cover some more early references to avatars.

As I sit looking at Tweetdeck this morning, looking over 40 avatars of people I know and don’t know, I wonder how much of my interaction is influenced by what a particular avatar looks like. Am I more willing to converse with someone who has a realistic avatar? A smiling avatar? Does the offbeat, non-human, text-based avatar inspire better communication or worse?

I have my hunches, and will write them up after I have done more research on the subject. In the meantime, here is some info on the origins of avatar.

From the Wikipedia entry for Avatar:

“An avatar (from the Sanskrit word for “a form of self”) is a computer user’s representation of himself/herself or alter ego, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities, or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs. It is an object representing the embodiment of the user. The term “avatar” can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.”

One of the first references of avatars as digital representations was in the 1985 game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. In this game the users goal was to become an avatar…it wasn’t until later versions that the user’s representation was called an avatar.

The first use of the term avatar in its current incarnation is possibly the work done at Lucasfilm Habitat Chronicles, created in 1986. Here is a nice piece in New York Times Magazine which digs into this a bit: On Language: Avatar. In this piece Aaron Britt interviews Randy Farmer, one of the creators of Habitat Chronicles, where the term was used to describe the online form of users. Says Randy:

“Chip (Morningstar) came up with the word avatar because back then, pre-Internet, you had to call a number with your telephone and then set it back into the cradle. You were reaching out into this game quite literally through a silver strand. The avatar was the incarnation of a deity, the player, in the online world. We liked the idea of the puppet master controlling his puppet, but instead of using strings, he was using a telephone line.

Here is a promotional video of Habitat which shows the avatars in action: Lucasfilm’s Habitat Promotional Video. Also check out The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat.

Another early exploration of avatars was in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 book Snow Crash. Here is a fascinating excerpt, in which Stephenson foresees a time when social norms build up around the fidelity of avatars, with sophistication being communicated in the rendering of realism:

“As Hiro approaches the Street, he sees two young couples, probably using their parents’ computers for a double date in the in the Metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop.

He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse. Hiro’s avatar is now on the Street, too, and if the couples coming off the monorail look over in his direction, they can see him, just as he’s seeing them. They could strike up a conversation: Hiro in the U-Stor-It in L.A. and the four teenagers probably on a couch in a suburb of Chicago, each with their own laptop. But they probably won’t talk to each other, any more than they would in Reality. These are nice kids, and they don’t want to talk to a solitary crossbreed with a slick custom avatar who’s packing a couple of swords.

You can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

Hiro’s avatar just looks like Hiro, with the difference that no matter what Hiro is wearing in Reality, his avatar always wears a black leather kimono. Most hacker types don’t go in for garish avatars, because they know that it takes a lot more sophistication to render a realistic human face than a talking penis. Kind of the way people who really know clothing can appreciate the fine details that separate a cheap gray wool suit from an expensive hand-tailored gray wool suit.”

And, of course, the upcoming movie Avatar.

More on avatars:

How Important are Avatars?

Published: December 8th, 2009