Avatars are virtual representations of people. Originally derived from Sanskrit, the word signifies “the visible form that Gods take on Earth.” The word carries its original meaning today as people use avatars in a god-like manner creating identities at will. “Avatar,” in its information technology use though, was popularized by science-fiction writers of the cyberpunk genre.
Avatars are becoming more and more popular in online spheres. Most famously avatars appear in virtual communities such as MUDs and MUVEs as well as video gaming environments, such as the Nintendo Wii product line. The physical appearance of an avatar can vary greatly depending on the avatar’s setting. Users can frequently manipulate character aspects from the mundane (eye color, hair color, attire, stature) to the exotic (species).
Activities that avatars perform run the gamut of human experience, and beyond. They can socialize, shop, date, attend online meetings and job interviews. Stucky has found that individuals are more willing to take risks in the virtual world. Consequently, virtual characters might experiment with activities a user might not normally perform. Obviously this is true for the more fantastical incarnations (or ‘excarnations.’)
What is becoming increasing clear is that avatars attract commercial interests. In fact, the lines between capital and virtual capital are blurring as cyberspace encounters and transactions can result in real-world profit. Larger corporations are beginning to recognize the potential. Aside from the clear-cut cost savings and overcoming of geographic boundaries, organizations are using avatars to develop a sense of employee camaraderie through virtual relations. Accordingly, IBM recently conducted a team-building exercise entirely in Second Life.
- Flynn, Laura. "Prototypes of Virtual Shoppers." New York Times. March 4, 1996.
- Codrington, Andrea. "Public Eye; One second you're James Taylor, the next you're Freud." New York Times. December 18, 1997.
- Pratt, Mary K. "Avatars Get Down to Business." Computerworld. Volume: 42 Issue: 26. 2008-06-23.