Yesterday I indicated that I'd discuss the word 'avatar,' so here goes:
I've noticed that the word 'avatar' gets thrown around a lot on-line. I see it used in Deviant Art, Concept Art, etc. In these cases it tends to mean something like 'pseudonym.' It's an alternate identity specifically used in on-line forums that a person assumes to either protect themselves or to play with their identity (ie. being a different gender, ethnicity, species, or other identifying category). The image, name, and biographic information may thus reflect a different persona than the user's. Theoretically, even if the user uses their own name, photo, and biographic information in their avatar, they are still selecting which photo and which information, and thus are constructing an identity. This plays directly into cyber-indentity studies. Frequently, a user will use the same avatar in multiple on-line forums. I, for instance, have taken to using 'The English Clergyman,' which originally developed as an MSN name.
In on-line games, including the MMOs I am discussing, 'avatar' works on more levels. Each character is, of course, an avatar of sorts. The user chooses a name, physical characteristics, and perhaps bio information. The user also makes decisions in the world, thus developing a personality perhaps different (and often ruder, but that's another post) than his or her own. However, the avatar also works on yet another level. When the players reveal their 'real' selves to other players, sometimes they simply reveal an avatar they have been using in chat rooms and blogs. So, if Druidcow runs into, say, Elfrogue, and Elfrogue asks who he really is, Druidcow may say 'I'm The English Clergyman. I also play Daniel Leonus in Guild Wars.' If the user has an established avatar in other places, this avatar may actually have more meaning than their real name, at least to those they meet on-line.
There is a large field of theory concerning the psychology and sociology of avatars on-line. That's for another day.
For now, I want to talk about what avatars really are. The word and idea originates from the conglomerate of religious traditions academics call Hinduism. Now, I don't know too much about this, but I figure I have a better working knowledge than your average Jane or Joe, so I'll give the explanation a shot. Of the three Triumvirate gods of colonial Hinduism, Vishnu was the sustainer or preserver. To save the world on multiple occasions, Vishnu incarnated into the physical world. One of these incarnations is understood to be Krishna, whose name later appears in Hare Krishna. Anyway, these incarnations were called 'avatars'. In particular, Vishnu has, according to some traditions, appeared nine times in the past and will incarnate once more.
More generally in the Hindu tradition, other dieties have incarnated as avatars as well. Shiva and Ganesha are good examples. Some Hindu traditions, particularly ones with a universalist approach to religion, have claimed that figures such as Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad are all avatars of Vishnu. If one were to adapt Hindu terminology to other religions, Christ could be said to be the avatar of the Judeo-Christian God, and this idea occurs frequently in Greek mythology as well (though with differences--avatars tend to live a full life as a mortal, while the Athene disguised herself as a human for brief visits on Earth and Hercules was neither an incarnation of another God, nor always divine).
Some will already have a taste of this from various anime shows, computer games, or, of course, the show Avatar. I have the feeling, though, that the origin of the term is unknown to most.
You can see how the term might have developed, though. In a sense, the on-line avatar functions like the Hindu avatar. A being incarnates himself/herself/itself/Godself into a 'lower' realm of existence in this alternate persona. In the on-line case, the user incarnates as a cyber persona, but it's still analogous. However, you'll note that the analogy places the user as a god-like entity and the cyber-identity as a world-changing hero. I wonder what this says about our self-perceptions on-line!
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