Long Live the Avatar


Oct. 3, 2006 — -- As "World of Warcraft" approaches the two-year mark since its release in November 2004, millions of gamers are also able to reflect upon the subtle fact that they have used the same virtual character -- or avatar -- from the very beginning.   

Because massive multiplayer online role-playing games are not designed to have an ending, gamers can inhabit avatars for as long as their online accounts are active.

This has led to the latest phenomenon within virtual worlds -- avatars with indefinite life spans.      

The growing success and popularity of virtual game worlds, measured in billions of dollars and tens of millions of players, suggest the life span of avatars is only going to increase.

The avatar has already become a much-studied digital body, getting both academic and artistic attention. 

"It is often very revealing. How people behave about their avatars, like so much else in cyberspace, is like a Roschach inkblot test," said Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. "Different people make it their own in their own way." 

Nick Yee, who has launched The Daedalus Project, an online journal of virtual world demography and psychology, says people tend to use avatars to take on new personalities.

"Extroverts are more likely to try out new identities and roles via their avatars, while introverts tend to create idealized versions of themselves."  

Photojournalist Robbie Cooper, who considers the creation of avatars a telling form of art, has spent the last two years photographing gamers worldwide.

In their forthcoming book, "Alter Ego," Cooper and writer/game developer Tracy Spaight juxtapose photographs of gamers with screen shots of their avatars to form a visual composite of their identity.

Although the first massively popular online games, such as "Ultima Online" and "EverQuest," were released almost 10 years ago, "many players will carry character concepts and names across game titles as they switch from game to game," Yee said.

More recent virtual worlds, "Second Life" or "Entropia Universe," have seen a major change in the form of real-cash economies, which allow avatars to possess value beyond the emotional attachment acquired over the years.    

"I think we are beginning to have worlds where a user's digital real estate is large enough to be worth considering," Yee said. 

In December 2005, British gamer Jon Jacobs made headlines when he purchased a virtual space station for $100,000 in the online game "Entropia Universe."

He has since converted it into a virtual nightclub and resort, Club Neverdie, which profits monthly from fees paid by other avatars for virtual clubbing and shopping.    

According to economist Edward Castronova of Indiana University, gamers such as Jacobs have a large amount of "avatar capital," which he defines as "the accumulation of experience points, equipment, and money that are owned by all the avatars of a gamer."  

"Not everyone is putting more cash into their avatars," he said. "But they are definitely putting more time and work into their avatars, which is an economic investment nonetheless."  

"Gamers grow so attached to their avatars that even if they stop playing the game, they do not close the account because they cannot bear the thought of killing their avatar," Castronova said.

In some cases, however, the avatar is beginning to outlive the physical life of the gamer. 

More than 7 million avatars play "World of Warcraft", and approximately a half million players are within "Second Life" and the "Entropia Universe."

"A few of those people are going to die unfortunately," Jacobs said.

And sometimes those in the virtual community can be left in the dark about the real-life fate of a fellow gamer.   

"If a gamer dies in the real world, no one in the virtual community has a way of knowing what happened to their online friend," said Spaight, vice president of game developer Rapid Reality. "Does it just blink out of existence? Gamers will eventually need to think about what should happen to their avatar if they die in real life."

Castronova suggested that players make their avatars more legally binding in the future.

"Avatars might become bequeathed legally with some secret name and password that the lawyer writes into a will," he said.

Jacobs currently maintains "IslandGirl," which is the avatar of his ex-fiancé, Tina Leiu, who died in February 2005 from flu complications.    

Game developers of "Entropia Universe" responded by creating a virtual shrine, built on Memorial Island, within the game for Leiu. 

The shrine features photos and music from her real-life career as a pop singer.

Jacobs frequently visits the virtual shrine using his avatar, whose name is "Neverdie." 

Jacobs said he considered his own avatar to be "an opportunity to play out a mythological role."

He frequently wonders who, among friends and family, will "play" "Neverdie" after he dies.  

Maybe online shrines are the future of avatars.

Instead of being able to visit Web sites of popular gamers and all the avatars they each play, we'll be able to visit sites devoted solely to the avatars and all the human gamers who have played it.

These sites can be like shrines to the gods. 

"The origin of the word [avatar] actually comes from Hindu mythology," said Cooper, who photographed Jacobs in "Alter Ego." "When a god takes physical form on the earth, it is called an avatar."

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