Avatars: Personas ? or Skins?

By | August 18, 2010

I’ve been following a discussion thread about avatars, where the distinction between ‘personas or skins’ demonstrates the discomfort people in enterprise situations might feel about the corporate use of avatars.
Firstly , a reminder as to why the corporate use of  3D environments does indeed have something unique to offer – which Skype, Webex, Gotomeeting, Citrix and the like, do not offer :

Virtual environments allow users to congregate around and modify editable objects; they allow users to interact with one another in a customised, spatial environment; they are places for streaming rich media; they have the potential to create narratives : think serious games and machinima.

Yes the platforms have glitches and can be unstable, but these problems are being addressed. Constraining usability issues should not be confused with the overarching principles being discussed here.

Secondly, What exactly is an avatar ?

Avatars are all about agency: somehow, users need to navigate and activate. Then, there is the question of persona: what or who does the user present to the online community? (Do you really have 600 friends on Facebook ?)

Taking the persona angle: for some users, having an customisable avatar allows them to feel MORE themselves than they do in their real life : this is well documented in cases of disabilitiy such as people with cerebral palsy.

It’s also worth remembering that the Barbie/Ken Doll/Disney forest creatures SL variety avatar, is just one kind of embodiment. Some platforms offer photorealistic versions of their users. One platform being developed creates the avatar via realtime video streaming of the user (one of my university colleagues is developing this), prompting the question, where does real and virtual presence begin/end?

My view is that people are unnecessarily hung up on concepts surrounding avatars, especially as the idea of having an avatar, fuelled in part by the James Cameron’s movie, is now widely understood, and is no longer some weird, nerdy, geeky thing.

Personally, I consider all expressions of the self online, as being an avatar, in the sense that it is a way of gaining agency and identity in a shared online environment. Fanciful, whimsical or strongly naturalistic – that is the users call, and their penchant for one choice over another, may change according to need and circumstance.

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