Long Live the Avatar

ByABC News
October 3, 2006, 10:02 AM

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.