I struggle with avatar creation. No matter the platform or my intention in the space (gaming or exploration), I take a lot of time considering my customization options and finessing the details of my avatar. I will often spend more time agonizing over the colour of the hair and eyes than I will considering what role my gaming character will play or what purpose my virtual world avatar will serve.
In reading Ulrike Schultze’s “Embodiment and presence in virtual worlds”, I was struck by the author’s proposed discussion on the likelihood of a strong correlation between users real selves and their virtual avatars. I think what struck me most was the initial claim that “[p]eople tend to create avatars that resemble their actual selves”. The author carries forward in the assumption that the above statement is true, inherently, and that it is only a matter of determining which parts the user feels reflects their true self and which parts others feel reflect the user’s true self.
While I would agree there is often a disconnect with our self-perception and the ways others perceive us, I feel that there is a preliminary disconnect that the author is missing on the basis of the initial assumption quoted above. I believe that it is not always the case that we create avatars that we feel resemble our actual selves, especially in the cases where we are looking to use the virtual space as an escape from our reality.
In some platforms, notably gaming, it is not possible to create a character that strongly correlates to our actual self if the options available to users do not include humanoid forms, but I think more often than not, even when a human choice is available, due to the nature of fantasy and science fiction gaming, users opt for the more non-human options as part of the escape aspect that fantasy worlds provide.
The same could easily be said of non-gaming worlds such as SecondLife. With the wide variety of design and customization options available to users, the room for identity play is expansive in such a way that it would be impossible to conclude that all users design avatars that resemble themselves. For many, the virtual world is as much a fantasy escape as more strictly constructed worlds as video games.
How closely we tie our avatars to our psychological self has been considered by Bessière et al. in “The ideal elf: identity exploration in World of Warcraft”. The authors explored the hypothesis that users who had lower self-esteem created avatars that more closely resembled their ideal self rather than their actual self and I feel this is something that Schultze needs to take into consideration when discussing identity creation in the virtual space.
Addressing the possibility of realizing an idealized version of ourselves allows us to consider that our virtual selves could potentially bear little to no resemblance to our actual selves, dependent on the purpose for which the avatar is being created, if we felt that our purpose would allow us to realize a self that is impossible in the real world.
If given the opportunity, who wouldn’t want to be able to realize an idealized version of themselves?