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Among people working on virtual reality and cyberspace interfaces, an avatar (sometimes AV or av) is an icon or representation of a user in a shared virtual reality. The term is sometimes used on MUDs, in computer role-playing games, and shared non-gaming universes such as Active Worlds[1], There[2] and Second Life[3].

This definition has recently been applied to online virtual communities and Internet forums in particular, as a picture that a member/user of such a community/forum has elected to display alongside his or her contributions in order to represent him or herself. Avatars have also become popular in Instant Messaging, and are sometimes referred to as Buddy icons or display pictures by Instant Messenger users.


It derives from the Sanskrit word Avatāra (अवतारः) which means "descent" and usually implies a deliberate descent into mortal realms for special purposes. The term is used primarily in Hinduism, for incarnations of Vishnu the Preserver, whom many Hindus worship as God. The Dasavatara are ten particular "great" incarnations of Vishnu.

The term "Avatar" as used for a computer representation of a user dates at least as far back as 1985, when it was used as the name for the player character in the Ultima series of personal computer games. The Ultima games started out in 1981, but it was in Ultima IV (1985), that the term "Avatar" was introduced. To become the "Avatar" was the goal of Ultima IV. The later games assumed that you were the Avatar and "Avatar" was the player's visual on-screen in-game persona. The on-screen representation could be customized in appearance.

Later, the term "Avatar" was used by the designers of the role-playing game Shadowrun (1989), the online role-playing game Habitat (1987) and was popularised by Neal Stephenson in his cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (1992), where it was used to describe the virtual simulation of the human form in the Metaverse, a virtual reality version of the Internet. Social status within the Metaverse was often based on the quality of a user's avatar, as a highly detailed avatar showed that the user was a skilled hacker and programmer while the less talented would buy off the shelf models in the same manner a forumer would today. Stephenson has said that he invented this use of the word without knowing somebody else had done it first. Skilled designers use software such as Truespace, 3D Studio Max, Maya, or other 3D graphics software. Flash and Photoshop are used creating avatars in computer graphics.

Use in forums[]

It is impossible to determine which Internet forums were the first to use an avatar representation system. This is because of the widespread use of avatars. All avatars used on Internet forums serve the purpose of representing a user and his/her actions, personalizing their additions to the forum, and may represent different parts of their persona or social status in the forum.

The traditional avatar system used on most Internet forums is a small (100x100 pixels, for example) square shaped area close to the user's forum post, where the avatar is placed. The style used varies. In one system, the user either designs an avatar on their personal computer before uploading it to the forum or downloads one from a website. Other forums may allow the user to select an avatar from a preset list.

Other avatar systems exist in different styles of forums, such as using a pixelized representation of a person or creature that can then be customized to the user's wishes. Some forums have not yet adopted any system, and continue to use only the user's chosen public name to represent them.

Avatars in games[]

Typically referring to a user's character in a MUD, MMORPG, or other game, such an avatar can be enhanced or changed as various events or experience is gained. Such a character will often frequently change over time, whether in appearance or abilities, and can usually be customized by the user upon entering the chosen game for the first time.

Avatars in instant messaging[]

AOL Instant Messenger was the first popular Instant Messaging program to use avatars, picking up on the idea from PC Games. However, users of AIM and many other IM services commonly refer to avatars as buddy icons. Many popular instant messaging programs use avatars, including MSN Messenger and Yahoo Messenger.

Avatars in non-gaming universes[]

Avatars in non-gaming universes are used as two-dimensional or three-dimensional human or fantastic representations of a person's self. Such representations can explore the virtual universe with which they are in using their avatar, add to it, or conduct conversations with other users, and can be customized by the user. Usually, the purpose and appeal of such non-gaming universes is to provide a large enhancement to common online conversation capabilities, and to allow the user to peacefully develop a portion of a non-gaming universe without being forced to strive towards a pre-defined goal.

The criteria avatars in non-gaming universes have to fulfill, in order to become useful, can depend to a great extent on, for example, the age of potential users. Research suggests that younger users of virtual communities put great emphasis on fun and entertainment aspects of avatars, as well as on their practical functionalities (e.g. whispering). Younger users are furthermore interested in the simple ease of use of avatars, and their ability to retain the user's anonymity. Meanwhile, older users pay great importance to an avatar's ability to reflect their own appearance, identity and personality. Additionally, the majority of older users want to be able to make use of an avatar's expressive functionalities (e.g. showing emotions), while being prepared to learn new methods of navigation, in order to handle the use of more complex avatars.

Avatar-based non-gaming universes are usually populated by those age groups, whose requirements concerning avatars are fulfilled. The majority of users of Habbo Hotel, for example, are of the age of 10 to 15. The reason for this might well be found in the properties and functionalities provided by the avatars of this virtual community. In contrast, There has a target audience ranging from the age of 22 to 49. The avatars incorporated into this immersive environment allow for a wide range of social interactions, including the expression of emotions. Another example is The Palace, where the majority of users seem to belong to an older age group. Here, users have the option to use their own images as avatars. This functionality turns the avatar into a direct reflection of their real-life appearance, a feature most desired by members of older age groups. Again, the population of the non-gaming universe seems to be largely determined by the properties and functionalities of its avatars.