Online Avatars: Digital Embodiment of the Real and Ideal Self

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As early as 1970s, the world started to become fascinated in video games and virtual role-playing platforms. It is when, according to Luenendonk (2015), gaming industry made its major transition from fringe entertainment to mainstream. With the advent of technology, the industry has become an evolving community of entertainment producers who transformed gaming as a viable entertainment for all.

In order to sustain the growing demand of seriously hooked gamers around the world, development on “gaming experience” skyrocketed creating a global phenomenon. Constant modifications in the field also became possible through the increasing potential of Internet. Of all the changes and additional features offered to the world, the introduction of game avatars is one of the most remarkable. It has become the driving mechanism of most RPG (Role Playing Games) and is crucial both for the functioning of the gameplay and the player’s perception of the virtual game world (Duncan, 2014).

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The word avatar originates from Hinduism which refers to the descent of a deity or Supreme Being in an earthly form. According to the beliefs of the Hindus, deities are pure consciousness and formless but are capable of manifesting themselves as physical projections of anything called “avatars”. With the idea that avatars are some sort of a customized image personified by deities, Richard Garriott in 1985 coined the term “Avatar” as on-screen representation of the user for the computer game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar. Garriott wanted the player’s character to be the extension of his real self into the virtual realm, thus, the game is designed as ethically nuanced and story-driven. Upon the completion of the game, the fate of the character depends on the in-game decisions made by the user in the course of the entire journey. In short, it is the responsibility of the player to take care of his own avatar. In an interview with Richard Garriott in 2010, he quoted, “Only if you are playing “yourself” could you be judged based on your character’s actions.”

Over the years, the idea of Garriott on virtual avatars expanded and became widely accepted by gamers and producers worldwide. At present, avatar still is the general term used to describe any character that represent a gamer in the virtual space. Technically, avatars are digital models driven by real-time humans that may either look like or behave like the humans controlling them (Hobart, 2012).

Despite this prominent role, the understanding of how avatars function and its implications seems to be so narrow and underdeveloped. Game avatars are not just simply virtual representations of gamers but reflections of their true identity and personality. In most cases, the user does not consider his created avatar as either a different person or just a fictitious digital character but rather as a remote-controlled extension of himself. This bridges the gap between reality and virtual world. The real-life decisions of a player are translated digitally through his avatar. Hence, he is the avatar, the avatar is him.

However, gamers’ understanding of their own avatars seems so tangential that they barely scratch the surface unconscious of the implications it entails. Avatars reveal not only the player’s demographic features but his identity that may or may not be explicitly expressed in real time. In this manner, being your avatar and portraying it in the virtual world is freedom of expression.

Apparently, through avatars, users can tailor the better versions of themselves. Especially in games that feature avatar customization, players can create a character based on their own liking. This is a great platform for players not only represent themselves but modify it to portray someone they are striving to become, their “ideal self”. However, as you dig deeper into the said mechanism of avatar customization, one can see the drawbacks of embodying the “ideal self” in digital spaces.

Firstly, the virtual realm becomes indistinguishable from the real world. Since the player satisfies himself with his virtual representation, he might invest most of his time playing his avatar and make much more effort for its development rather than paying attention to the life he has in the real world. Since he lives most of his time embodying his avatar, the moment he goes back to the real world becomes a serious challenge. The dilemma strikes him so hard that he always wanted to go back again in the world where he can be his better version, free from insecurities. This is detrimental for highly addicted players of role playing games. They start to be chained inside an unrealistic world that, if you look closely, is no more than a space of nothingness.

Secondly, the user starts to lose the sense of self identity. The satisfaction given by the ideal self he has in digital spaces becomes his top priority. This is where self-discrepancy originates. The player adapts the characteristics of the “unreal him”. The drastic change in the personality of most gamers is a clear manifestation of them falling in the pit of gaming addiction. Moreover, self-discrepancy between one’s actual self and one’s ideal self is coupled with negative emotional states (e.g., depression) or unhealthy lifestyles (e.g., eating disorders) and is mostly caused and intensified by exposure to unrealistic portrayal of one’s self (Kim,Y. & Sundar, S., 2012). It is the gamer who weighs his digital ideal self-projection as more worthy than the real self who lacks traits he always dreamed to have.

Finally, the user starts to lose focus and contentment. The way gamers perceive the real world tremendously changes. He wants to be like his avatar but in real time. He starts to want more. The standards set by games become his standards and he lives up in the ideals of his created avatar. This psychological condition forces the person to lose focus as he tends to daydream a lot. It is like a virus that always wants to infect one’s mind. To a certain extent, the player will no longer create a fine line between his reality and his avatar’s artificiality.

On its deepest note, game avatars despite holding a special place in game designs can pose psychological challenges upon the user. It can deconstruct one’s perception of reality. As a result, the real world and the virtual world from where the player exists coalesce. However, merging these two completely different worlds causes a catastrophic event where the player claimed to be the only victim.

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