Early examples of highly customizable avatars include the various Multi-User systems, including MUDs and MUCKs in which only lines of text represented a virtual identity in a virtual, text based world. From these systems grew graphical representations of online identity, such as the graphical avatars on forums as well as the virtual dress up-dolls found on sites such as Gaia Online or NeoPets. Video games have also changed greatly in how they represent the player in an online setting. Starting with Stormfront Studios Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical MMORPG (Massively Multi-Player Online Role Playing Game). Later games such as Ultima Online and Everquest diversified choices, allowing a truly customizable appearance. With clothing, race, class and physical details all selectable by the player. Since then, options have increased dramatically such as the entirely customizable experience found in Second Life, in which a player may themselves, create nearly anything they can imagine. Although most users purchase the more extravagant avatars.
The highly customizable avatar is a staple of online social interaction as a means of presenting an individual identity. Most forums utilize a small JPEG (Joint Photographics Experts Group) file or a GIF (Graphics Interchange Format) file to display small image next to the posts made by the user. Other forums have highly customizable avatars such as those found on Gaia Online, in which users can piece together thousands of virtual items to dress their avatar up in various fashions. Gaia Online's economy is based upon the distribution of “special” items for real-world money and the company has also advertised their sponsors via these distributable items. This is somewhat like IMVU messenger, a hybrid instant messenger and video game in which users may customize such things as their avatar and their living space. While visually appearing much like Second Life or video games, IMVU is at its core a messaging program and has more in common with AOL Messenger than it does World of Warcraft. IMVU, much like Gaia Online runs its economy off of virtual items. Users may earn “credits” via sponsored surveys or completing certain tasks to purchase new items and upgrades to better customize their appearance. In a similar vein, Linden Lab's Second Life creates a virtual world. In which not only are avatars for sale, homes, decorations, buildings and even land are for sale in Second Life's virtual world. Everything about Second Life is customizable and its rapidly growing economy is based around user creations. Unlike IMVU or Gaia Online, a user with experience in modeling or animating is able to sell his virtual products for real-world dollars and numerous people run real-world businesses based in the virtual world of Second Life.
Avatar is often synonymous with an roleplaying game (RPG), and the term is thought to have gained widespread use due to the Ultima Series of role playing games referring to the player character as an avatar. Modern RPG models have continued to use this model of customizable characters. Although games such as Warcraft or EverQuest have more limited initial options for customization that open up as a character grows in power whether via in game mounts and homes or simply more in-game ability to purchase or acquire clothing that the player wants to have for reasons other than influence on gameplay.
Often inadvertently, the appearance of an avatar has a direct correlation to how they are perceived by other players. Stronger and more powerful items are usually designed to appear considerably better than the common items and in this way an experienced player can be spotted out of a group of new characters even before in game stats are viewed.
In social role playing games such as Furcadia or the Social Server phenomena of ORPGs found on games such as Neverwinter Nights, a custom avatar often means the hard work of the player, or their social connections within the game world. This unique, crafted appearance is often considered a signal of a more invested player.
Often avatars are used to express ideals and desires that users are prevented from showing outside of virtual space. Turkle described, for instance a case of a middle aged man who played an aggressive and confrontational female character in his online communities, displaying many of his inner personality traits that he felt too embarrassed to let show in the offline world.
Many avatars represent an ideal vision of oneself, however research by Nick Yee of the Daedelus project has shown that this is less common than many assume and differ heavily based upon gender. Female players seem to have a drastically higher desire to play “perfect” characters who are graceful, lean, athletic and beautiful while the majority of male players prefer to play characters of average attractiveness and males are much more likely then females to play, old, ugly or unpleasant characters whilst females have a higher desire to play “cute” and lithe characters. Yee also found that most players will make an avatar that is their height, or slightly taller.
As observed by Turkle, many players seek an emotional connection that they are unable to establish in the real world. He described a case in which a man with a serious heart condition that prevented him from socializing via normal means found acceptance, friendship and relationship via his online identity. Others have pointed out similar findings in relation to those with mental disorders that make social interaction difficult, such as those with autism or similar mental difficulties.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 Bear, Amy (27 April 2010). "Me, My Self, My Character, and I: Role-playing Identities in Ludic Space.". Online Conference on Networks and Communities. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
- ↑ Au, Wagner James (22 April 2007). "Move over MySpace, Gaia Online is here". GigaOm. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
- ↑ Morgan, KC (10 March 2010). "What`s So Great About IMVU?". Website Marketing. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
- ↑ Hopkins, Curt (28 April 2010). "Second Life Economy At Record High". ReadWritePlay. SAY Media, Inc.. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
- ↑ Ramirez, Mark (23 January 2009). "Finding Your Identity in Online Games". Games Blog. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 McCorduck, Pamela. "Sex, Lies and Avatars". Wired. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Yee, Nick (17 February 2008). "Our Virtual Bodies, Ourselves?". The Daedalus Project. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
- ↑ Harris, Stephen (23 April 2010). "Working Through Personal Identity Issues Using Virtual Communities and Networks". Online Conference on Networks and Communities. Retrieved on 15 December 2012.
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