The technological use of “avatar” emerged via a spontaneous burst of coinages in the late 1980s and early ’90s, at the dawn of personal computing. It appeared in the video game Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar in 1985; the dial-up computer community Habitat in 1986; the tabletop role-playing game Shadowrun in 1989; and Neal Stephenson’s breakout novel, “Snow Crash,” in 1992, about a futuristic, anarcho-capitalist Los Angeles in which people projected themselves into a virtual public square called the Metaverse.
The coincidence of a bunch of American video-game, fantasy and science-fiction authors cribbing from Hinduism 101 speaks to the need to describe a truly novel phenomenon. But it also hints at a similar worldview among the men — and they were all men — who came to define it. As Stephenson told me, “That was a time when people had more idealistic notions of what digital technology was going to do for us, sometimes bordering on the mystical.” For socially marginalized science-fiction fans and computer geeks, the virtual world could help people enjoy a level of social status and acceptance they lacked at home. Using a computer granted them a level of godlike power, because they had skills most people lacked. In advertisements for Habitat, the early online community was billed as a “place full of drama and adventure,” where each user could seize the rare opportunity to “reflect his real self-image, from toe to head.” A player could literally snap off his avatar’s head and pop a new one on.
The technological co-opting of the word replicated the power dynamic in the original avatar myth — the avatar helps a higher being interact with a lesser realm, one he or she controls. But it also retained the idea of the avatar’s task of delivering righteousness to a lawless world. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima games, said he came across the Hindu concept while looking for a way to encourage moral behavior in gaming. He was disturbed by players who took the easiest possible route to win the game. “They weren’t acting like heroes,” Garriott told me. “They would kill all the local villagers if it meant gaining enough power to kill the bad guy.” So Garriott started framing his hero as an “avatar” instead of a “character.” He served players with a personality test to imbue the avatar with the player’s own attributes and build elements of personal accountability into the gameplay. In James Cameron’s 2009 film “Avatar,” another avatar injects human empathy into a virtual interaction. In the film, an ex-Marine sent to colonize the planet Pandora grows to identify with its native people through his occupation of a body that looks and feels like theirs.
But if an avatar was once a projection of the human body and human values, as the Internet grew in popularity it was flattened into a mask. It became the standard term for a simple image that accompanied a screen name in a chat room or discussion group. In discrete gaming worlds, value systems were strangely authentic: Everyone was building his or her mini-me in the same system and playing by the same rules. But in the mixed-use spaces of the Internet — where some people were playing themselves and others were hoping to play tricks — avatars became ambiguous. Bad actors could sulk under the cover of the Web while they pasted reputation-killing content on a message board or terrifying threats on Twitter. Avatars became tools for stoking chaos instead of enforcing order.
When social networking arose, mammoth platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn chose to strip the mask away. The idea of the avatar doesn’t factor into their self-conception, and the word doesn’t appear in their promotional copy. These are “platforms” with “profiles” and “accounts.” On Facebook, you’re supposed to just be “you” — no particular technological prowess required, and no avatar necessary to translate yourself to the new medium.
That’s the new tech fantasy, anyway. But, of course, on Facebook, our profile pictures are avatars, too: emblems of our success, our good grooming, our unflappable happiness. In fact, proliferating online platforms have prompted us to create more and more conceptions of ourselves to send off into the world. Showing up, looking good, being clever and seeming like you really care in all these different spaces can feel like a video game set to the hardest level, except you only get one life.
Amanda Hess, “Self Portrait”, The New York Times Magazine (15 May 2016), 18-19.