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What is a Computer Avatar?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

A computer avatar is a personalized graphic file or rendering that represents a computer user. There are basically two types: those used at websites, such as on Web exchange boards, and those used in gaming and virtual worlds.

The simplest type of avatar is a small graphics file used on websites. Websites that offer chat boards often allow members to upload an image to represent themselves. The avatar can be a real-life digital photo of the person using it, but is more often an image intended to be a creative alter ego. This might be a game-rendered snapshot of a beast, hero, or heroine; a humorous picture of a pet or cartoonish character; or a design that makes a statement. The image appears alongside the user’s posts, easily identifying the author for others at a glance.

Avatars can be detailed images used in web games.
Avatars can be detailed images used in web games.

Sometimes, a website will offer a generic pool of avatars for those who have not yet created their own. Commonly, the user replaces the generic image as soon as he or she learns how to create a personal one. Many websites offering services that use avatars provide instructions on how to create and upload them.

While Web users have static graphics files as avatars, in virtual worlds, the avatar is a fully rendered interactive character. In many cases, all aspects of the character can be customized using an interface with slide bars to change features like body type, hair, skin, and clothing. The avatar in a virtual world walks within the computerized landscape for the user, manipulating the environment. Mouse and keyboard strokes move the character and cause it to perform a variety of actions. It might walk, run, jump, fight, fly, shoot, dance, yell, pick up objects, open doors, or even create objects.

Avatars can be computer generator characters that can be customized.
Avatars can be computer generator characters that can be customized.

In virtual worlds like, the degree of uniqueness the avatar reflects says something about the experience of the user controlling it. There is no clearer way to advertise oneself as a newbie than to trot around a virtual world using a generic avatar when customizing options exist.

The virtual world avatar also has an inventory, unlike Web-based ones. The inventory includes items the character has collected, earned or purchased. In gaming, these might include things like tools, weapons, ammunition, and food. The non-gaming avatar might collect clothing, accessories, memberships to clubs inside the virtual world, pets, vehicles, virtual currency, and many other items. Virtual world software remembers the character’s most recent appearance and inventory and restores them with each session.

In Hindu mythology, an avatar is a deity that has taken on an earthly form, most often that of a human, in order to bring higher consciousness to the earth that the Hindu gods created. As humans create virtual worlds, it could be said that the computer version represents human incarnation into its own creation. Religious affiliations aside, the computer avatar holds a rich and conceptually provocative namesake.

Discussion Comments


Hey, DrWish I read Snow Crash too. Great book! I also just read another book about a military avatar--it's pretty awesome. I just kept thinking to myself: I want one! Anyway, the book is called "Beta Project Avatar" by AMD Hays.


@turkay1-- Yes, avatar and incarnation is the same thing. For example, Vishnu, the supreme God has many incarnations or avatars. Rama and Krishna are his avatars. Rama is the King of Ayodhya and Krishna is know for his blue color and his charming ways with ladies. So all these avatars are different representations or forms of the same deity.

I wonder if Indian computer engineers thought of this term for online use? Does anyone know?


Is avatar and incarnation the same thing in Hinduism?

Can celebrity pictures be avatars? I know lots of people who do that on various forums.


After computer avatars became popular, I've noticed that the word is being used in the film industry as well, aside from the Avatar movie. For example, they say that actress x or actor y will be seen in a new avatar in their new film. Avatar has become a synonym for "character."


I use a great landscape photo as my avatar. It can portray the real me in a safe way.


While avatars can be a fun, creative way to present yourself online, it's important to never reveal any information about your whereabouts while surfing the web. The presence of an avatar does not necessarily protect you from stalkers, thieves, sexual deviants. Avatars are simply a different way to depict the self. Avatar or not, never reveal your home address, telephone number, place of employment, or daily routine to strangers online.


There seems to have been a bit of an avatar "craze" lately. I'm all for the creation of a personalized graphic to function as your virtual face – they can be both fun and say something about their owners – but there are now a plethora of sites offering to let you build yourself an avatar in "this, that, or the other" style.

It has become, in some cases, no more than a narcissistic waste of time.


The use of the word "avatar" as a term for a user's virtual "skin" was popularized by Neal Stephenson in his book Snow Crash. In it the protagonist, Hiro, makes frequent visits to a virtual world where users have nearly infinite freedom in the creation of an animated graphic that will be the image seen by those they encounter – their avatar.

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    • Avatars can be detailed images used in web games.
      By: Phuoc Hanh
      Avatars can be detailed images used in web games.
    • Avatars can be computer generator characters that can be customized.
      By: aid corporation
      Avatars can be computer generator characters that can be customized.