Understanding Avatars in Games and Social Media, Part 1

In my last post, I briefly mentioned the parallels that exist between the games industry and social media world. It a kind-of-obvious thing that dawns upon a web programmer who walks into a Games panel at SXSW. There’s definitely lots to consider regarding avatars, but I’m still engaged in grappling with the concept itself. Today i’m going to write about a framework brewed in my notebook that (so far) has helped me understand the scope of avatars as they’re used in games and social media.

It’s definitely a fear of mine that this post is a bit scattered, because there are an infinite number of examples I could use. Hopefully, i’ve picked a few clear ones that can help get the discussion rolling.

We all know avatars in some form or another. They’re elusive to define, and have existed in so many forms that they’re difficult to evaluate or understand when you’re pondering and enhancement bug called “Add Avatars” in a project queue. It seems like modern games handle avatars in various interesting ways that we in social media can learn from.

MMORPG’s are probably the foremost types of customizable avatars that modern gamers are familiar with. They’re alter-egos with vast customization possibilities — you can easily change the appearance of one’s body, gender, face, hair, etc. within most of these games fairly simply. In some of them, part of your activity is going forth into the world to get new items, armor, and weapons that you can adorn your avatar with. In certain RPG’s, the body itself changes as your alter-ego gains experience in the game world, appearing stronger as the character itself gains strength.

In multiplayer first-person shooter games, avatars have also gone through many evolutions of customization. In the Quake series, custom skins that completely replace the texture mapped to your avatar have had a long history. In newer military sims, such as Battlefield 2, the military rank of a friendly player appears by his name in the game world.

So, clearly, some of these games are taking your in-game activity or history, distilling those into graphical or visual concepts, and automatically enhancing or marking up your avatar. This is actually a key concept that i’ll return to, right after I talk about how some of this in-game activity data is also being collected and distributed in a more raw or statistical form.

In World of Warcraft, statistics about your character are compiled within the game, and can be viewed within the game, but also output in the form of a generated badge. In games like Battlefield 2, a similar open stats database made huge amounts of raw data available as information, and also made syndication of that avatar information hugely popular.

On the web, we can easily see many parallels to these methods of customization to game avatars. Early and even modern messageboards vary in what level of freedom their avatars have. However; the most common customization options involve uploading or linking to an avatar image, and being able to modify a signature reflecting something about their personality relevant to the community. Some sites also collect and display member stats, such as Date Joined, Number of Posts, and occasionally a summarized title that reflects their status or history in the community.

In the Web 2.0 world, we can also see parallels in sites like Flickr, which allow more complete profile building as an activity, including Buddy Icons, Bios, relationship status, all sorts of different metadata about one’s self. However, the real expression of creativity on the site — the photos that one uploads — is directly where you go when you click on a buddy icon. This user-controllable information is clearly the emphasis of these communities.

Data is also aggregated and syndicated out from these services via widgets, although it’s easy to see that some widget providers are doing better than others at creating an aesthetically pleasing summary of the raw data behind the user’s activity.

Unfortunately, i’m running out of time, so i’ve gotta wrap this up.

The framework i’m trying to illustrate here is to look at avatar or profile buildling as a layered approach to identity, common between games and social media. I like to imagine the layers from high to low, sorted by the time it takes to comprehend or digest the meaning of the information compared to the incremental value it provides to identity. The first layer consists of small, controllable aspects of identity that are most frequently encountered — these are things like buddy icons, character appearance customization, usernames, etc. Within a community, this is how one gets to be known, and provides visual cues for recognition and memory. The second layer is also under the user’s control, but provides a huge bulk of relevant information to the community — this includes profiles, bios, photos, descriptive information, and more. This top half of the framework really is defined by the user’s ability to directly control the information within. In MySpace terms, the first layer would be a user’s profile name and buddy icon (which you see all over the site), and the second layer would be the user’s profile page (which tells you the most about the user for the space taken).

The layers underneath are more about the indirectly-controllable raw data reflecting a user’s activity within a community, and they can be segregated into multiple parts. The highest layer of these are visual elements that reflect summary information about a user’s activity in the community, such as trophies, medals, rank displays, and little icons. Underneath that lie small textual summaries that are easier to parse, such as signatures, information summaries, Xbox Live Gamerscore, and more. Even further beneath (but still widely used) are the full-blown statistical layouts, like the Battlefield 2 and World of Warcraft stats pages. Although this information is less valuable for getting to know an avatar than say, a full profile page, it often can give us a more nuanced, trusted view of the data within, because it’s less easy to game, and takes time to build up.

Although the minimum amount of avatar building on the web is sometimes just a simple username, this can still be an effective device to giving users a sense of identity. It’s my hope that understanding these elements of avatars can help me go further than just username, though, in building more compelling identity experiences for users of the web, and perhaps it’ll also be helpful for game designers to watch what web 2.0 users are doing to build their identities online. As I said earlier, this is just a base concept that i’ll extend and elaborate about as time goes on, but I need to stick with my one-post-per day commitment, so apologies if this comes out as half-baked.

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