Who cares what they look like online?

The answer is: everyone.

Before we step out the door each morning, most of us would have paid careful attention to our appearance. From the clothes we wear and the way we style our hair to our choice of accessories and whether we use make up or not. So it’s not surprising that we also spend a lot of time and effort on the way we look online. That is, the appearance of our online and gaming avatars.

Social media profile photos

Some people update their Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook profile pictures with the frequency of changing their underwear, while others stubbornly retain the same picture from the very first upload. Both actions represent conscious decisions (whether people admit it or not). Profiles provide an important opportunity to communicate our identity through a tiny piece of onscreen real estate. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to create a first impression, which prompts a lot of navel gazing when considering the options. Do we change our photo or leave it as is? Do we use a picture of ourselves at our impeccable best or do we crop a photo from this year’s Halloween party while dressed as a zombie in the early stages of decomposition? We don’t want to be judged solely by our photo but we are all guilty of casting judgement on others. What do we think about the person that uses a profile picture with their significant other and kids? Or when they use a photo of themselves surrounded by a big group of friends? How does that compare with someone else who has a picture of their dog or cat? Or those who opt out completely and use a comic, toy or celebrity as their avatar?

Avatar customization in video games

Video games are a rich source of avatar customization from the delightful Sackboy in LittleBigPlanet (Media Molecule) and epic fantasy characters of World of Warcraft (Blizzard) to the creepily detailed features available in the Fallout series (Interplay Entertainment). Moreover, the hours that gamers dedicate to their beloved games also results in a strong attachment to their online avatars.

British artist Robbie Cooper, published a book called Alter Ego (Chris Boot Ltd) which featured photographs of video game players alongside images of their online avatars. These pictures confirm something all gamers know: never assume anything about a person’s real life identity from their avatar. Some people create avatars which are versions of their ideal self, someone who is stronger, taller and better looking. Others want to role-play lives that are completely different from their own. In fact, it is quite common for players to choose avatars of the opposite gender or radically different ethnicity. Games provide an environment for individuals to look and act in a way that is just not possible in real life. But why is that important?

Photograph from Robbie Cooper’s book Alter Ego, featuring Thierry Te Dunne, a building superintendent in France and his avatar in Guild Wars.

The importance of self expression and multiple identities

The central issue is not how people express themselves but in providing an opportunity to do so. There is a deeper level of engagement when online identities are created and customized. Moreover, the time and effort invested into that process means that over time, online profiles become an extension of real life identities. The short film below, from director Gavin Kelly, is a great illustration of this concept. Avatar Days, follows four MMORPG gamers talking about their online avatars, while their avatars go about their daily routines. 

Just as we fulfill multiple roles in real life, our online avatars represent different facets of our personalities. At the Web 2.0 Conference held in San Francisco last month, Christopher Poole (aka Moot) founder of online imageboard 4chan, rightly asserted : “Identity is prismatic”.

[A related article on identity which includes Poole’s speech is located here .]

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