This article considers the video game avatar and its value for many players as a form of self-expression.
An avatar is a player-controlled character (henceforth we use the terms ‘avatar’ and ‘character’ interchangeably). The avatar is an instrument through which the player interacts with a video game’s virtual world. Virtual worlds in massive multiplayer online role-playing (MMORPG) games like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars, and Skyrim, among many others, are highly developed digital, fictional environments.
Typically modern video games make avatars customizable, which is a key element when it comes to the player’s self-expression. Before the player enters a video game’s virtual world, he is presented with an opportunity to customize his character through several choices offered. These customizable options include the avatar’s appearances (e.g. height, weight, skin, and eye color), race (e.g. orc, goblin, human, or elf), and build (e.g. warrior, mage, archer, shaman, and so on). Some video games also offer in-game customizable options that allow the player to change the appearance of his character. This can include changing hairstyle, clothing, skin color, weapons, armor, trinkets, and so on.
Avatars give the player a sense of really being present in a virtual world as it “mediates our self in the virtual world, we inhabit it, we drive it, and we receive all of our sensory information about the world from its standpoint” (1). He receives sensory information about the world as the avatar “merges spectatorship and participation” (2). What makes video games distinctive from most other forms of media is that they make the player participate in and interact with the virtual world. The avatar is key to this reality of being both spectator and participant, which makes video games somewhat like interactive films.
Many players spend considerable time creating their characters (3). They particularly value the aesthetics of their avatars, especially as they can express themselves through their design. They appreciate the results of these efforts (4).
Avatar creation is thus a conscious effort for players (5). The character becomes a medium through which one can express aspects of the self, such as one’s personality, ethnicity, and beliefs. Many report the desire to create an avatar that they can identify with and with which they can create a long-term relationship (6). One player claims that she is often called “cute” in real life and thus deliberately created an ugly character to make it as far from herself as possible. The character expresses a femininity different from the one she experiences in her ordinary life. A lesbian player created a character to make it look like her ideal real-life partner. In these cases, the avatar becomes a mirror projected upon by the player and that reflects outwards to other inhabitants of the virtual world.
Avatars offer players “the chance to express multiple and often unexplored aspects of the self” (7). One researcher taking on the role of an active player for purposes of research explains: “Personally, it was interesting that my first impulse when I began playing the game for the purpose of this research was to create a human priest avatar. When I reflected on this later, I found that the selection matched my real life identity and my choice to be a priest in the virtual sense offered me the opportunity to explore a different set of skills in a different world” (8). Important to keep in mind is that players do not always create characters based on their real-world identity and can, for example, impersonate others or hide information about themselves.
Further, many players create their avatars to be a better version of their real-life physical selves (9). Consider one player who chose to be an elf ranger,
“The character which I still like to play the most is the ranger. Rangers are often elves. I like elves because they are slender, agile – they’re more physically like I am. They deal with dexterity and agility rather than massive strength. They tend to be long-lived, so they’re more wise and more patient than humans. The rangers are usually the lone wolf. He’s out there, out in the woods. I grew up like Tom Sawyer, out climbing trees, and he’s like the lone warrior. He saves the world and then goes off by himself in the woods” (10).
Another player decided to create a character similar to him in being physically slender. He turns this slender nature into strengths within the virtual world. The character is simultaneously self and other.
For many, the avatar can have a real impact on an individual’s sense of self (11). For instance, those with “poorer psychological wellbeing and lower levels of self-esteem usually create avatars that are closer to their ideal self and hence, further removed from their true reality” (12). It can become a serious problem in the player’s real life when his avatar’s identity is perceived as being more satisfactory than his true identity or is experienced as more real than the player’s own one (13).
Many players want to form a strong relationship with their character. Consider one who explains his decision to use a shaman character,
“I’ve always been interested in real life shamanism and how they view the world… I identify with [my character] because he is the shaman, and that is something I know; that kind of spirituality I find attractive. I mean even though it’s a game, he’s a shaman so he’s representing this classic iconic real life station. People for thousands of years have followed these traditions and passed on to their children’s children’s children” (14).
This strong connection is apparent in the player becoming a “part of the story… and the mythological character in itself” (15). These players want to level up their characters, engage in questing, and explore the world as they progress through a story. This “is one of the interesting parts of the game. Unlike other games… you follow the certain story line. So you actually get to take a part of the story” (16).
The deep bond between the avatar and player is illustrated in the player’s use of first-person statements such as “I explored Pandora”, “I was killed,” “I destroyed the dungeon,” etc. In reality, it is the avatar through which the player has these encounters. Several researchers define this strong connection as “identity-based relationships” based on similar statements like “[the character] is me in the game world” or that “I suppose [PH]1 is a cartoon/fantasy representation of what I try to be/hope that I am” (17).
Avatars come to symbolize significantly more than just a game object. They become objects to be fondly remembered and cherished: “My character is as valuable as a photo album, it’s a collection of memories” (18). Often the player feels he and his character have been through a lot together, such as one might describe a real-life relationship. The video game character gains sentimental value to its user.
Characters become especially sentimental and valuable because of the “time and effort [put] into it”, namely its development; another says he “feel[s] they have value from all the time and effort I’ve put into them” (19). Players become proud of their avatars: “I have in my own way been creator and breathed life into him, so he would be like (in some weird crazy roundabout sense) my child”; another declares “Look at my character! She’s grown up so much. I almost feel like I’m sharing photos of children. Like I have a daughter or something and she’s grown up so much.” A clear attachment to the avatar is expressed in these voices.
There is a strong social dimension to many video games (20). In online, multiplayer video games, millions of players can occupy a virtual world at the same time through their avatars. In the virtual worlds one’s character comes into contact with those of other players through joining social groups (often called guilds), interactive trade options, collective support in questing, and combatting each other in player-versus-player (PvP) modes. One plays socially with others including friends, family, and strangers.
The appearance of an avatar in social in-game settings becomes valuable because it is on public display. One can appreciate the visual appearance of another player’s character in the game. Appearance also offers information about a player behind the avatar, for example, aesthetic items like armor and weapons can indicate the amount of effort and time a player has put into developing his character. It is obvious, merely based on the appearance of a character, to notice major differences between a player who has just started out and one who has spent large amounts of time playing the video game. The avatar becomes an object from which the player can derive a sense of accomplishment and social recognition.
In conclusion, the video game avatar has obvious importance to many players. It is often designed, created, and employed in virtual worlds as a form of self-expression. This can include the character being an expression of the self by making it appear or look like one in real life, or it can be an expression of what the player wishes he could be in real life but is not. As such, the design of an avatar’s appearance is a conscious effort of many players. We noted how the player can form a strong bond with his character, especially because he has invested so much time in it, and how through it he navigates virtual worlds and partakes in a narrative. Finally, the avatar is valued socially because of the recognition its appearance receives from other players in the virtual world.
- E. Castronova quoted in Livingston, Ian J., Gutwin, Carl., Mandryk, Regan L., and Birk, Max. 2014. “How Players Value their Characters in World of Warcraft.” Conference: Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing. p. 1 (PDF download).
- Bob Rehak quoted in Perreault, Greg. 2012. “Holy Sins: Depictions of Violent Religion in Contemporary Console Games.” Conference on Digital Religion Center for Religion, Media and Culture, University of Colorado-Boulder. p. 5 (PDF download).
- Charlotte Hagström quoted in Corneliussen, Hilde G., and Rettberg, Jill Walker. 2011. Digital Culture, Play, and Identity. A World of Warcraft Reader. London: MIT Press.
- Livingston, Ian J., Gutwin, Carl., Mandryk, Regan L., and Birk, Max. 2014. Ibid. p. 8.
- Hayes, Elisabeth. 2005. “Women and video gaming: Gendered identities at play.” Games and Culture 2(1):1-26.
- Eklund, Lina. 2011. “Doing gender in cyberspace: The performance of gender by female World of Warcraft players.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 17(3):323-342. p. 328.
- Turkle, Sherry. 1997. Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone. p. 12.
- Vallikatt, Jose. 2014. “Virtually Religious: Myth, Ritual and Community in World of Warcraft.” Dissertation, School of Media and Communication College of Design and Social Context RMIT University. p. 161.
- Ramshaw, Adam. 2020. “‘World of Warcraft is My Home From Home’: An Argument for the Protection of Virtual Worlds.” Journal of Law, Technology and Trust 1(1). p. 6 (PDF download).
- Kuo, Andrew., Lutz, Richard J., and Hiler, Jacob L. 2016. “Brave new World of Warcraft: a conceptual framework for active escapism.” Journal of Consumer Marketing 33(7):498-506.
- Ramshaw, Adam. 2020. Ibid. p. 7.
- Katherine Bessière, A Fleming Seay, and Sara Kiesler quoted in “The ideal elf: Identity exploration in World of Warcraft.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 10(4):530-535.
- Fuster, Héctor., Oberst, Ursula., Griffiths, Mark., Carbonell, Xavier., Chamarro, Andres., and Talarn, Antoni. 2012. “Psychological motivation in online role-playing games: A study of Spanish World of Warcraft players.” Anales de Psicología 28(1). p. 278.
- Livingston, Ian J., Gutwin, Carl., Mandryk, Regan L., and Birk, Max. 2014. “How Players Value their Characters in World of Warcraft.” CSCW ’14: Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing. p. 7 (PDF download).
- Vallikatt, Jose. 2014. Ibid. p. 161.
- Vallikatt, Jose. 2014. Ibid. p. 88.
- Livingston, Ian J., et al. 2014. Ibid. p. 4.
- Livingston, Ian J., et al. 2014. Ibid. p. 8.
- Livingston, Ian J., et al. 2014. Ibid. p. 6.
- Livingston, Ian J., et al. 2014. Ibid. p. 1-4.