The following is a selection of samples of avatar usage within games and social media, culled from throughout the web. It loosely follows the examples cited and linked from within part one in this mini-series, and i hope it helps in illustrating the usefulness of the model I described in part two for understanding avatars, especially as an important component of both games and social media.
One inconsistency that I encountered in my model is regarding the topic of textual achievements. I found that if a system didn’t provide the ability to automatically describe or summarize pertinent achievements or possessions, users often care enough to list them on their own. Although one might guess that these achievement summaries might not be as trustworthy as system-maintained ones, there might be enough community pressure to keep people from exaggerating these sections.
Anyway, I’ll start with the most obvious, accepted uses of the term “Avatar” and try to experiment with this model by explaining the examples in context.
The well-documented MMORPG scene’s king, World of Warcraft, probably presents the best example of what we normally think of as an avatar. Here, we can see three player-customized three dimensional models of characters they play in the game world, with their character names floating above their heads. Also present is a guild tag, implying membership in a group of characters. I’d consider these all marks that efficiently communicate identity in a standardized visual format, which would put them at the top layer in the model. In addition to the player-controlled customizations, the game also may adapts your character’s appearance depending on what items, armor, or weapons you have equipped (although i’m told headgear is an optional one). This communicates efficiently what level a character is through the visual medium — kind of like status symbols in the real world, and for that purpose, i’d consider them as Visual Achievements.
In Battlefield 2, a popular team-based first-person shooter that emphasizes multiplayer play, the player appears in-game as a random avatar picked from a library of models corresponding to that person’s class and team choices. However, the username appears above teammates’ heads, alongside a visual icon that represent’s the player’s class. This gives us a quick, reliable of the experience level of the person the avatar represents, and is a clear example of a system-maintained visual achievement icon.
In Flickr, a buddy icon list can also be understood as the presentation of groups of avatars Recognizable Marks. Screen names on Flickr, in combination with buddy icons, help us identify those who we know, those who we don’t know, and those who we might be attracted to and therefore whose photos we should go check out. Kidding aside, Flickr is definitely a step apart from World of Warcraft in its use of these avatar elements, because you can easily change your screen name or buddy icon at any time. Perhaps it’s the relative stability of profiles that you encounter in a Flickr experience that make this a non-issue… in any case, the usage still performs a similar role.
MySpace, arguable the most notable social software application in use today, can be used to demonstrate the difference between the layer of recognizable marks and the layer of autobiography.
Above, we just see a MySpace buddyicon and username. This is how all users appear in each others’ friends lists and comments made on other users’ profiles.
Clicking into that username reveals the full profile, the home to the greater amount of information that acts as more of an autobiography. This is where users have come to expect greater customization possibilities, and the ability to fully express themselves. The boundary between the two is pretty straightforward, yet both are elements of avatars.
Moving on to more mainstream web (but still social media!) uses of the avatar, let’s take a closer look at these three examples of messageboard-style avatars. I’ve found that messageboard-style avatars typically combine Recognizable Marks such as username and graphical buddy icon, as well as a few Textual Achievements (Member Since, # Posts being the most common), and will often encourage the use of a user-modified signature.
In the first example, from SomethingAwful forums, we can see the use of graphical avatar along with username, Member Since, and a small slogan snippet of text. It’s a very old, well established messageboard, and we can look at it as an example of the classic style of messageboard avatars.
In the second example, taken from Woot.com, we can see that graphical avatars aren’t present, but the user has added in his own small picture, and also appended a custom signature that lists his “achievements” on woot; namely, those items that he’s managed to buy. Impressively, he has racked up 3 Bags of Crap (“Bandolier of Carrots”), which can earn him some definite credibility within this community. Although this sig is user-defined, he’s chosen to take the approach of listing Achievements instead of writing a bio or similar info; this may be a clue to the suitability of Achievements (visual or textual) to this communication space.
PelicanParts, being a car community where grease-monkeys help one another, has a few interesting twists on the recognizable marks being shown in the profile. Since trust does play a bigger role in deciding whose mechanical advice one should follow, the Textual Achievement of number of posts is definitely a key metric to look at. The “Senior Member” that appears probably also gives more trust in combination with the # of posts, but unfortunately, those titles are member-defined. Still, i’m sure that community mores enforce the accuracy of that title. Additionally, geography is an important thing to consider, because members will often ask for recommendations, or reach out to other forum members in need. That helps to explain why the additional information of “Location” is available in that compressed area. We can also see a glimpse of the Autobiographical / Textual Achievements written in the user’s signature below.
Now, I’d like to spend a little time showing examples of dynamically generated visualizations of user participation in games or social media. These aren’t often considered a “part” of a user’s avatar, but in the discussed model, it can definitely play a large part in a user’s identity! It’s not totally mainstream yet, as in the following examples, these presentations are mostly generated by third parties.
In this example, raw WoW play data is compiled for a single user, and then gets represented in this syndicated, visual form.
In BF2S, a popular 3rd party statistical website covering Battlefield 2 accounts, offers a great deal of statistical insight into a player’s raw play data, going as far as to analyze every shot ever fired during a ranked game.
This information can also be presented in a format suitable for signatures placed on forum postings. It’s interesting to note that making statistical information available to 3rd parties allows users to syndicate out these visual and textual achievements in various visualizations themselves, and still retain the trusted nature of presenting dynamically updating game data.
Yet again, we can find a clear parallel going on in Flickr, as statistics easily available via the Flickr API can be reformatted in a visually appealing treatment, and resyndicated back to a user’s profile to become a part of their avatar.
An interesting and progressive approach to system-controlled visual achievements is Fable, a game for Xbox that gradually changes the entire appearance of your avatar depending on the actions your character takes during his life. It makes one wonder what else might be possible for highly dynamic games and social software to adjust, based upon your actions in the community!
One of my favorite examples of visual achievements is actually quite revolutionary — the Xbox Live platform has actually fully adopted achievements throughout its games.
These are some examples of achievements you can get in Gears of War. Not only are these available just within the game, they show up in your Xbox Live account, and provide insight into depth of usage across titles for a particular user in a fun, graphically catchy way. Microsoft’s name for this platform program is Gamertag. It can’t be discounted that it turns the user profile into social media of a sort, and makes collection of identity across a game platform into a game of its own.
And yet again, we can find a quick example of 3rd party syndication of this data. Here, we can see small icons that represent games the user has played — again, information that takes a while to digest textually, but is relatively quick and seamless to glance over visually.
That’s pretty much all i’ve got time for! I definitely covered a lot of examples here, touching on all of the parts of the Understanding Avatars model that I threw together. One conclusion we can draw from this as social media or game developers is that providing raw statistical game data gives users trusted ways to express their identity within a particular community. At the least, this will allow third parties to provide ways for users to include these aspects of identity more easily within their avatars. Our consistent use of games and social media is actually what builds our reputation over time, and creating simple ways to express this part of identity creates a feedback loop that can dramatically change the nature of engagement with our products.
For anyone following my post-per-business day from the ol’ SXSW notes strategy, i’m gonna give myself a break tomorrow so I can catch up on sleep. Today’s was a really long one. Seeya on Thursday!