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.
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.
In virtual worlds like SecondLife.com, 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.