We use avatars all the time, even outside of our computer screens. The advent of playing roles to fit in and navigate other worlds is not exclusive to gaming, though that is where we hear the word “avatar” thrown around most. Once you enter a game of soccer, and are pitted against another team, you take on the role of a player from your own team. The rules of your world have shifted for the sake of this soccer game, and for a brief 30 or 40 minutes, this team affiliation becomes your identity. Even if the other teams’ players are your friends, for a short time, they become your enemies, and you want to beat them more than anything. This is exactly the concept that game developers take into consideration when dealing with avatars. Once you enter the Minecraft world, you are a cuboid builder who must fend off evil mobs. In Animal Crossing, you become a small villager who has to talk with their neighbors to complete quests. And so on and so forth.
Philosopher Rober Pfaller described a user’s relationship with their digital avatars as “interpassivity”. There is this unconscious transfer of activity and emotion from us to another being: our avatars act and feel on our behalf. When something detrimental happens to our character in the game world, regardless of whether it adds or subtracts points from our score, we feel indirectly wronged. This is the relationship between avatar and player. Avatars are an extension of their players, but are, to a degree, an elevated version of the players themselves. Their actions are synced so that the avatar completes tasks and has skills that the player may not. For example, my avatar may be able to fly or jump very high. This allows people to escape their personal reality and begin to see the strengths of their avatars in themselves.
Now, why is all this important? Yes, it’s fun to pick out cool outfits and hairstyles for our avatars that we’d never try out in real life. But, what you will find is that in every avatar-player pair, there is something in the essence of this digital self that lines up with the identity of the player. It may not be physical, but emotionally, there is something connecting these two beings together. This is how games use characters to build empathy and teach meaningful lessons to users. It is also linked to the rise of the Metaverse concept- there may come a day when we interact with each other online purely through the face of our avatars. This is already happening in Altspace VR, but some companies like Ready Player Me are seeking to create cross-platform avatars that can be used in multiple VR worlds and games. The way we identify with our digital selves is changing rapidly, and it’s something that we as consumers must also start thinking about.