Avatar (virtual representation)

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are graphical or pictorial representations of an individual within a virtual environment. The purpose of an avatar is to serve as a way for individuals to identify themselves and others within a virtual environment. Avatars can take a three-dimensional form, in virtual worlds or in a two-dimensional form on Internet forums for online communities. They are also referred to as "picons" or personal icons. [1]Individuals become associated with their avatars and the actions and representations of the avatars reflect upon the identities and intentions of the users controlling them. Ethical implication of avatars include issues of false identities, possibilities for ethical and moral actions, and tools available for creating avatars. Avatars exist within all types of virtual environments, including but not limited to: Forums, Blogs, Chat Rooms, Video Games, and Social Media
Various face avatars from FaceYourManga via LaughingSquid

Term Origin and History

Traditionally, an avatar is an intentional, physical manifestation of a higher being into earthly flesh, as in Hinduism. Specifically, an avatar can be concerned as a graphical representation of a user in an interactive environment. The term originated in Hinduism and refers to the worldly embodiment of god. [2]

The use of the term in reference to a user's manifestation within a virtual environment can be traced back to 1985, when the game Ultima IV made it the goal of the player to become the Avatar, and after which the subsequent games in the series referred to your in-game, on-screen persona as the Avatar, in reference to the fourth game's story line.

Types of Avatars

Sample of World of Warcraft avatars. Image from Chris Baer's blog.

There are many different ways to present an avatar in a virtual community. Some are designed to enhance the representation of a user's personality and some are more geared towards representing the user's movements and interactions in virtual space.

  • Textual- In some virtual environments, the only form of representation is either a textual description of the individual or an online alias like a screen name that entirely encapsulates the user's identity. Another example of an avatar is a Bitmoji. Bitmoji allows users to talk freely via instant messaging or by using other applications with an avatar character, Bitmoji, that is designed by the user to represent themselves.
  • Flat Image - Many online forums (like for example Metafilter and ChiefDelphi FIRST Robotics Forums) and other text-based communities allow users to upload images, either static or animated (GIF) depictions of whatever the user would like others to associate themselves with. These can also be portraits as in more social text-based communities. They encourage users to upload photos of themselves (not necessarily in the traditional portrait style).
  • Static character - In many single player games, players manipulate a main player without the option to customize its appearance or its role in the storyline.
  • Dynamic character - These are best described as virtual dolls, the appearance of which users can customize to represent themselves or to emulate any emotion or characterization of their choosing. These Avatars can be either simply dynamic visual representations or mobile, manipulatable "bodies" within a virtual world.


While many types of avatars, for example those depicted in the picture on this page, function as part of a larger scheme (like a game or open-ended 3d environment like Second life, some other avatar creation tools exist for no purpose beyond creating the avatar itself[3]. Avatars are unique tools in the online environment because they capture the power and limitation of online interaction. The ability to manipulate and change things in an online environment an ability not possible online is an empowering almost God-like function an avatar can provide. However, avatars are limiting as well because graphical representations today cannot capture the nuances of human interaction.


Avatars allow game users to visualize their interactions with the virtual world and in turn make it easier for them to act in a virtual environment. For example, it is easier and perhaps more natural for a player to manipulate his or her Avatar through a doorway to see a new area than it is for said player to select an option or type a request to see that new area.

Avatars help users to immerse themselves within virtual worlds and see themselves walking up to other characters, moving within landscapes, and affecting other elements within the game.

In text based virtual worlds and forums/chat rooms, the 2D images likely can be commented upon. They also help to put a out certain character traits of the user (happy, smart, serious, joking, etc.).


See also: Online Identity

Avatars represent players within a game. They are more than placeholders for the spatial relations in the game; users' online Avatars' behaviors and appearance often reflect their offline appearance, behaviors and personality and behavior. If they are given the affordance, users often design or choose avatars that closely resemble themselves or what they feel best represents their true self. [4] [5]

Through their online avatar, users are able to engage in new, digital spaces with geographically disparate individuals. Many of these spaces, like offline counterparts, especially encourage the presentation of one's active-self, the self through which information is communicated voluntarily. [6] To maintain one's Privacy in the Online Environment one simply restrains from sharing one's personal information during online sessions identifying as the avatar.

Users also maintain privacy through obfuscation of the infosphere, taking advantage of the online system by creating avatars that bear no resemblance to the offline self. Users' motivations to impersonate an other-self vary: to be someone different, to blend in with a crowd one normally wouldn't be accepted by, to be voyeuristic, for entertainment purposes, and many other reasons. However, avatars can also represent one's true identity by using features that represent one's offline self. Although this is not a way to maintain privacy, it is a method to not deceive other users who come in contact with one's avatar. A user can change the image of the avatar as often as they want, thus devaluing the accuracy of the online image.

It is often the case that a user's avatar seems to become and be seen as an extension of the user's being. Raph Koster, in devising a declaration of the rights of players in virtual worlds, Koster wrote his "Declaration of the Rights of Avatars" [7].

Ethical Concerns

False Identity

The implications vary with the type of online platform used. In the context of a textual environment like blogging, where the only form of identity is a screen name, users may express some views that do not represent their actual feelings, in effect creating a false virtual identity. This can be done to attract readers or to increase one’s fan base. Even though the impact may not appear very harmful, it can have disastrous real world consequences. For instance, there have been many reported cases of men writing as a lesbian woman, which is problematic and insulting to the gay community [8]. If readers make conclusions about a writer’s personality through his or her style of writing, the consequences are not nearly as disastrous. It is when a writer expresses false ideas that stem from their identity, that the trust fostered between the writer and their readers is broken and discarded.

Identity ethics in terms of dynamic avatar use

In the case of a dynamic avatar, the implications will not only concern the behavior aspect but may also extend to the physical make-up of the character. An inaccurate representation may lead to incorrect interactions with other avatars present in the virtual world. For instance, Second Life allows users to enter into virtual relationships and there are examples of people who have married online. Professor Tom Boellstorff at the University of California at Irvine remarks, "For some people, the escape factor is one of the best things about a virtual world like Second Life. You can try having a totally different life, and there’s people who get married inside of Second Life to someone that they don’t even know who that person is in the physical world, even if it’s really a man or a woman in the physical world. They have a house and even virtual kids and a job, and they have a whole life inside of Second Life." [9] A misrepresentation of gender, in this case, may drastically change the dimensions of inter-sex interaction in the online environment of Second Life. A male avatar can be forced to believe that he is interacting with a female avatar, but in reality the female character could be a false identity for a male user. A user who invests a lot time and effort in building this online relationship as they would in the real world may be misled, and this deceit may hurt the real users' emotions. On one hand, the user utilizing a false identity might be expressing their freedom to represent themselves as whatever identity they want in a virtual environment, but as they are creating this false identity they could be hurting other users who trust that their avatar identity and interaction is the same as in real life. Thus, the implications may extend to the real lives of people who interact with and control avatars. With the advent of technology and the popularity of avatars, users must think about a variety of ethical problems before creating an avatar and interacting in a virtual environment.

Gaining an advantage using False Identity

In online MMORPG environments, there can be uses of false identity combined with dynamic avatars to gain advantages in some games. An example of an act doing so is males avatar users pretending to be a girl using female avatars to get in game currency from other male users, and vice versa. Mia Consalvo brings up this point in Gaining Advantage in Videogames when stating that cheating for some gamers is seen as "Anything Other Than Getting through the Game All on Your Own.”[10]

Privacy Concerns

There are also a lot of privacy concerns regarding avatars. What you see online is not always true. On social media sites and blog sites, hackers can upload a fake image of someone and pretend they are someone else, allowing them to acquire the information they need from users. Due to so many editing tools and sites nowadays, a person can create an avatar who is skinnier, prettier, and modified in all sorts of ways. A great example where you see false misrepresentations of avatars would be Facebook. Because Facebook allows users to upload any pictures they want, a hacker can create a fake avatar and “friend” real users to acquire private information. There are so many times when I got friend requests from fake users that I had to block them from continually adding me. I knew they were fake because the information listed in their About section did not match up to who they say they are. Surprisingly, a lot of Facebook users do not give a second thought when it comes to online friend requests. This is scary to think about since hackers can use the user’s Facebook information and track them down in real life. Like what David W. Shoemaker states in his “Self Exposure” article, we should be cautious online and manage our identity better.

Lack of Representation

Standards of attractiveness online are biased

Oftentimes, especially prior the recent years that have seen a boost in representation of marginalized identities in media, online avatar builders overlook the need to represent marginalized identities such as gender, sexuality, race, and body type on their platforms. Additionally, many of these platforms and online simulations start off users with a "neutral" starter character that is typically white, heterosexual, cisgender, and slender, which creates a biased, discriminatory standard of the optimal appearance.

Gender Identity

Some avatar-building websites follow a strict gender-binary system, where users are forced to pick either "boy" or "girl" avatar to design. This system is transphobic in that it gives no space for transgender or gender-nonconforming people to represent themselves accurately with an avatar.[11]. Additionally, males who choose female avatars in games are often accused of purposefully fooling men into thinking they are women, perhaps because women are generally perceived as worse at video games. This not only discriminates against the transgender community because they are seen as trying to be deceitful instead of trying to select their gender identity, but it also discriminates women by contributing to the stereotype of females not being skilled in video games. Popular games such as Pokemon are known for following this polarized system.

Users are forced to pick a gender on Pokemon
Other online simulations such as Second Life allow players complete control to explore their gender and how they choose to express it online.[12]

Sexual Identity

These polarized systems are also often very restrictive in the appearance of a male or female avatar; male avatars have a square, muscular body shape and facial hair, while female avatars have prominent breasts, wide hips, and soft, sometimes painted features. Oftentimes there is no way for the user to alter these gendered physical features of the avatar. This forced gendering of bodies and equation of gender with sex is trans-exclusionary, as it provides no avenue for a transgender man or woman to accurately represent their body if they have not physically transitioned. More generally, this system is also restrictive in the representation of men and women's bodies, and does not account for any variation that naturally exists in people.[13]

Gender Expression

Oftentimes users have the option to dress and accessorize their avatar on these systems. This feature however is commonly separated into two categories for men's and women's fashion, allowing "female" avatars to only dress in "women's" clothing, and "male" avatars to only dress in "men's" clothing. Additionally, generally only "female" avatars have the ability to wear makeup. These restrictions limit the gender expression of users, and prevents them from being able to represent themselves as they appear in real life; women who prefer mens clothing or men who enjoy wearing dresses are not able to do so with their avatars on these simulations. The online simulation game is an exception to this trend, in that the game strays from differentiating between the two sexes. "Sims move around in the same way and have the same possibilities of interacting with each other and with objects, regardless of their sex."[14]

Sexual Orientation

On many online simulation games, avatars are by default, heterosexual, and cannot have formalized relationships with the same sex. One exception to this trend is the widely popular EA Sims computer game, in which avatars have always been able to form a romantic relationship with men or women. The game's treatment of these relationships however, has evolved drastically across iterations. On The Sims 2, the game added the feature for couples to marry, but gave different terminology to gay couples: heterosexual sims could "marry" one another, while homosexual sims could have a "joined union." This distinction is inherently homophobic, and has changed with more recent iterations, such as The Sims 4, in which any sim can marry anyone, and there is no distinction based on sexual orientation.[15]

Race & Ethnicity

Limited skin tones on Bitmoji

Some avatar builders are restrictive in the ways that different races can customize their appearance to create an accurate representation. Oftentimes skin color options are very limited and only include a few shades to choose from for people who are not caucasian. Additionally, many of these avatar builders can be colorist towards black people with very dark skin, and often will omit including the option for a very dark skin color altogether. Other racist discrepancies include restrictions on the shape of physical features such as eyes, noses, mouths, and hair type to only reflect european standards and omit features representative of other ethnicities.[16]

Body Type

Body type choices on Bitmoji

Body type is seldom represented accurately on avatar platforms due to the inability for users to alter body size and shape. This restriction prevents people who are fat or have unique body shape that is not commonly seen from being able to represent themselves accurately online. This limitation also makes a statement about normalcy and shames people for having a body shape that is anything other than skinny and fit. On The Sims 4 which aims to emulate a wide array of human emotions, sims have "the capacity to feel grossly unhappy about their own appearance..." such as their weight.[17]

Gender Discrimination

The idea of an avatar is at the center of cyberspace idealism, which views the internet as a utopia where everyone can be free of discrimination, come from equal backgrounds, and have equal abilities. [18] Some argue that there is a difference in the way men and women interact and exert control over their online identities. While the internet can provide women freedom from barriers such as vulnerability in a physical and sexual way. However women are the principal victims of cyberstalking, and cyberharassment, this includes hacking into accounts, creating false profiles, being targeted for “revenge porn” or have their pictures be manipulated with the intent to humiliate, or threaten victims.


Discrepancy between the sexualization of male and female avatars

In many cases online, there is a double standard in regards to the sexualization of male vs. female avatars. Female characters in video games are often portrayed with exaggerated breast and hip size, minimal clothing, and limited contribution to the story line in any aspect other than their sexuality; these characters are often reduced to sexual objects. [19]

Avatar Rape

Harassment and assault are frequent in virtual worlds such as “Second Life”, in 2010 receiving up to 2000 abuse reports a day. [20] Jean Van Delinder, a associate professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University believes that “assault, even virtual assault, has a psychological and emotional component. It is more than just physical because the victim or target continuously replays in the mind what has happened and, in a sense, experiences it over and over again. While, there is skepticism on the effects that avatar rape, there are those who argue that it is not possible for those who have not become immersed completely in their online identities to understand the impacts of virtual assault. [21] When gaming online, people forge deep connections with their avatars and live out experiences through them, as such, when one's avatar is raped or hurt, it may feel personal for the player. It is hard to assess this issue from a legal standpoint, but as cyberbullying dialogue continues, avatar rape will likely join the policy discussion.

Mediums for Ethical and Moral Actions

Avatars give people a virtual space for self expression, but they can also serve as devices for moral and ethical actions. Actions such as demonstrating a metaphor, creating Public Service Announcements (PSA), and reanactments of events. Two examples that show the use of an avatar as vehicle are the the World of Warcraft Funeral for Serenity and the Eve Online 'Piracy over Merchant'[22].

A subscriber of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (WoW) passed away due to a fatal heart attack. The WoW player's boyfriend decided that he would hold a virtual funeral for her, allowing those who were not physically at the funeral the chance to mourn, with the use of her avatar. He logged into his girlfriend's account and notified her in-game friends. The group carried the avatar to the chosen funeral location and created a circle around the digital character. Everyone stood in silence as the boyfriend recited the final rites.

Eve Online is another MMORPG where players use spacecrafts as their vesiles to engage in intergalactic warfare, merchant activities, and transporters of digital goods. The video game's economy, environment, and game content are run by the players. One of the game's subscribers used his avatar to gain currency through unethical behavior. He created an in-game bank that accumalated approximately $170,000 worth of InterStellar Kredits (the game's currency) and essentially 'ran off with the money'. In order to show that the game promoted such behavior rather than an 'honest role', another players repeated false bank routine.

Avatar Creation Tools

As part of entering one's self into a virtual world, the user must create the avatar that will represent himself/herself in that environment. Ethical questions have been raised about the responsibilities that these managers or creators have while designing avatar creation tools. One important ethical decision the user must make is whether to hide their identity or project their identity with the use of their avatar. Different features that are used to make an avatar can alter a user's digital image to represent something false. A user can completely change the look of their avatar to depict a false representation and portray an aspirational image of themselves.

Marion Boberg's "Designing Avatars" [23] discusses the need for avatar creation tools to provide diverse options for users. Not doing so limits the ability for the user to accurately represent herself in the virtual world, which in turn limits her ability to raise her esteem and social presence within that society. Boberg also mentions that options for animations, gestures, voices, speech styles, and the availability of methods to emote within the virtual world can allow users to be more expressive through their avatars. It was noted for some participants, however, that while they desired diverse options for their avatars appearance, clothing and other characteristics, they actually preferred generic faces with little customization. Having an avatar with a generic face allowed those users to use their imagination to fill in what they really wanted in the face rather than agonizing over the facial portion of the avatar creation process.

Another question can be asked: Why should creators/managers of virtual worlds care if their users can represent themselves to the extent that they desire? People desire the esteem of others.[24] The incentive to act within a virtual environment increases as the likelihood that the user will be observed increases, the size of the relevant artist increases, and/or the quality of the audience increases. If the creators of a virtual world make money through either a subscription fee or through advertisements within their world, it is necessary to have users willing to participate and act within it. If a user feels like his avatar is an appropriate representation of his normative self, then he is more likely to meet with similar users (more relevant audience). If there are more options to be distinct within a virtual world, the likelihood that the user will be seen or observed amongst the masses increases.

See Also


  1. Lessig, Lawrence. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Basic Books, 2000. ISBN 0-465-03913-8
  2. Sage Knowledge. "Avatar." Retrieved on 16 April 2016.
  3. Evolver Pro. "Industry Solutions." Retrieved on 16 April 2016.
  4. Nowak, K. L., and Rauh, C. (2005)
  5. Sundar, S. Shyam."The influence of the avatar on online perceptions of anthropomorphism, androgyny, credibility, homophily, and attraction." 2014. Retrieved on 16 April 2016.
  6. Cocking, D. (2008). Plural selves and relational identity: Intimacy and privacy online. In Information technology and moral philosophy. J. van der Hoven & J Weckert. (pp. 123-141). Cambridge University Press.
  7. Koster, Raph. "Declaring the Rights of Players." 2000. Retrieved on 16 April 2016.
  8. Addley, Esther and Quinn, Ben. "The Guardian: Second lesbian blogger exposed as a man." 13 June 2011. Retrieved on 16 April 2011.
  9. Severson, Lucky. "Second Life." 18 September 2009. Retrieved on 16 April 2016.
  10. Consalvo, Mia. Cheating: Gaining advantage in videogames. (pp. 83-105). Chapter Mit Press, 2009. Retrieved on 4 April 2018
  11. "Schultz, Ryan. Sex and Gender Issues in Virtual Worlds: "The male/female dichotomy was viewed as binary and the technology (literally) codified that concept"." Retrieved 17 April 2018.
  12. "Mitra, Barbara & Golz Paul. Exploring Intrinsic Gender Identity Using Second Life
  13. "Gender switching on World of Warcraft"
  14. Albrechtslund, Anne-Mette. Gender Values in Simulation Games: Sex and The Sims https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/c898/3b1f5350304e811ac732e5097e49aeaf220b.pdf
  15. "Gay relationships on The Sims"
  16. Thomsen, Michael. How Does The Sims 4 Handle Gender And Racism? via Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelthomsen/2014/08/15/how-does-the-sims-4-handle-gender-and-racism/#5edf0fd415cd
  17. "Whipperwhirl. PCGames: “Sims can be unhappy about their weight” via SimsVIP
  18. Franks, Mary Anne. "Unwilling Avatars: Idealism and Discrimination in Cyberspace." By Mary Anne Franks :: SSRN. N.p., 25 Apr. 2009. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
  19. Tassi, Paul. "The One-Sided Problem of Oversexualization in Video Games." By Paul Tassi 08 Nov. 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2018.
  20. Bugeha, Michael. "Avatar Rape." Inside Higher Ed. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
  21. Staff, Wired. "Virtual Rape Is Traumatic, but Is It a Crime?" Wired. Conde Nast, 04 May 2007. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.
  22. Meadows, Mark Stephen. "A Few Notes on Griefing and Morality." I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2008. Print.
  23. Boberg, Marion. Ollia, Elina. Piipo, Petri. https://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1413679 ["Designing Avatars."] 10 September 2008. Retrieved on 4 April 2018.
  24. Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Philip. "Esteem, Identifiability and the Internet." 5 May 2004. Retrieved on 4 April 2018.

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