Avatars aren’t tokens

 Posted by (Visited 12675 times)  Game talk  Tagged with:
May 062009

A little bit ago there was a kerfuffle over an event in World of Warcraft that ended with female characters getting bunny ears put on their heads. This post isn’t about that — not directly, anyway.

Rather, it’s about the reaction that many users had regarding avatars, characters, and players, and the divides between them.

The key quote that sets me off is this one from Tobold:

Ultimately your avatar is just a playing piece, and reading too much into his gender or race, and then projecting real world politics onto that, can only be a bad thing.

Unfortunately, even if we wish it to be so (and indeed, much of game design demands that it be so, much of the time) it’s not actually humanly possible.

Essentially, here I am making a narratological case, even though I have frequently argued the other side of this. But boy, avatars is a pretty special case. We have a lot of “specialized hardware” around this in our brains, and avatars tend to trigger a lot of it. For example, the fusiform face area or FFA is a part of the brain that seems to be involved in facial recognition, and also seems to fire off when identifying specific objects with fine distinctions (for example, it fires in birdwatchers when identifying birds, and in car aficionados when recognizing specific makes and models). The interesting thing is that the FFA activates even with iconified faces — with stuff that we just think of as a face.

Many factors have a large and generally subconscious impact on how we interact with people socially, and often those cues are triggered by simple things like facial proportions. It’s long been known that larger eyes in proportion to the face trigger a reaction in humans that makes us consider the face to be “cuter” — it is speculated that this is a response to neoteny, the retention of childlike characteristics even into adulthood. This is also known as “baby-face bias.” Squarer jaws lend a perception of authority; big foreheads, a perception of helplessness and innocence. It is routine for models in fashion photographs to have their eyes enlarged via photomanipulation in order to appear more attractive, but that is simply the same trick that women have been using for centuries with eyeshadow instead. These days you can get the look in a more high-tech fashion.

Baby-face bias is far from the only one of these automatic effects. There’s “savannah preference,” which describes our inherent bias (especially when younger) towards regarding certain types of landscapes as pretty. There’s the MAFA effect, which sees the most average face as the most attractive (check out faceresearch.org for lots more on faces). Similarity to self, gender biases, and even height have been shown to have a dramatic effect on our interpersonal interactions.

This stuff triggers in our brain regardless of whether we’re looking at a cartoon, an avatar, or a real person. (Or sometimes, a bird or a car). It’s not possible to keep these sorts of things out of our avatars. In fact, researchers at Stanford have found that height bias, whereby short folks tend to get dismissed more readily in social situations, carries over into virtual life:

…Yee recruited 50 volunteers, randomly assigned them to short or tall avatars, then instructed them to divide a virtual pool of $100 with another participant — one player would suggest how to split the pot, and the other could accept or reject the offer, with each person getting nothing if offers were rejected. People with tall avatars (three or four inches taller than the stranger avatar) negotiated more aggressively than the short ones, while short avatars were twice as likely as the tall ones to accept an unfair split — $25 versus $75.

Again, the behavior held up in real life. When Yee had the subjects shed their avatars and negotiate face-to-face, sitting down, people who had inhabited tall avatars bargained more aggressively, suggesting unfair splits more often. And participants who had had short avatars accepted less-than-even money more often than the tall ones. How tall the people were themselves became less important, if only temporarily, than the height of their online alter egos.

“How Second Life Affects Real Life”, Time

In effect, our tokens have become rich enough to cause us to subconsciously treat them as people, whether or not we intended it. The magic circle here is quite simply shattered, at a fundamental psychological and biological level. In fact, we can even exploit these these even more: we can “hack the users” by exploiting some of these reactions, in the same way that we exploit classical conditioning with tricks like “ding” sounds. Having distant 3rd person avatars makes people more likely to see them as tokens; having a close-up perspective where you see faces makes you more likely to see them as people — and then this has carry-over effects to things like, say, PvP systems and the harassment that could ensue (since vile mistreatment of victims is more likely to occur on objectified targets…) Or this chilling example of mirror neuron exploitation, which one could easily see used in the future by avatar politicians or demagogues:

For example, in the real world, making eye contact increases your persuasiveness, but you can gaze at only one person at a time. In cyberspace, Bailenson’s lab has found, you can make your avatar seem to gaze at multiple people; they’ll pay more attention than they would in a face-to-face conversation, and be twice as likely to agree with you. In real life, mimicking people’s behavior can persuade them; in cyberspace, where every movement is digitally tracked, you can be a more accurate and subtle copycat. Merely copying someone’s head movements after a four-second delay makes them much more likely to agree with you, Bailenson found.

“Stanford professor shows how avatars mimic behavior,” Stanford Magazine

So, what does this have to do with bunny ears on female avatars? A lot. Bunny ears are an example of classical conditioning: the imagery there has been associated in popular culture for decades now with a particular form of sexualization. We can intellectually try not to have that reaction but we’re really talking about how quickly we move past the conditioned reaction. As game players, we learn to see past the dressing, but the dressing is still in the way, and our automatic reactions happen anyway. It’s far less dramatic than the effect that large eyes or specific animations have, but it is there for a large percentage of the population nonetheless.

The same players who might argue for less social and psychological fidelity with also argue for greater graphical fidelity, and lead us down this slippery slope.  The result? We may not want to import real life gender politics into our virtual worlds, but through increasing fidelity, we have done so willy nilly. And this goes for age, race, gender, attractiveness, clothing — anything where we have been shaped by either evolution or conditioning to have predisposed attitudes.

This is properly regarded as a design constraint, not as a matter for debate on blogs. If you choose big-forehead avatars with giant eyes, you are shaping your in-game behaviors just as much as if you choose an RPG combat system versus point-and-shoot. You manipulate whether you choose to or not. (For further reading on some of this from a game design perspective, I suggest Isbister’s Better Game Characters by Design. There are too many books for me to recommend on cognitive biases, mirror neurons, faces, and the like, for me to dig up the links right now).

Finally, if you as a user really want avatars to just be tokens, you probably will need to play ASCII worlds that display avatars as actual tokens, like NetHack. The bug is in your brain’s software, not the MMO software.

  38 Responses to “Avatars aren’t tokens”

  1. I completely agree with you but on the last paragraph. Text-based virtual worlds can have pretty rich avatars (by textual description, like characters in books), and some would argue that happens even more in those worlds (it’s not your computer skill that defines how good is your avatar, it’s the effort you put on it). Avatars *definitively* have an influence in text-based VW’s.

  2. No, I meant ASCII, like NetHack. 🙂 Actual tokens.

    Text-based virtual worlds definitely have rich avatars. They trigger a different set of brain circuits, but an awful lot of the same issues apply.

  3. All the more reason, then, to protect the magic circle and to try to keep the emotional train wrecks out of the game by design. If people are going to bring their baggage anyway, why give them more reasons to complain?

  4. Great, Tesh. Let’s start here: https://www.raphkoster.com/2005/12/30/the-evil-we-pretend-to-do/

    Heh heh. Point being, it’s outright hard to protect.

  5. I’m not saying it’s easy, just that we should err on the side of protecting it, rather than letting things through. If people are going to take offense at the stupidest things, why not try to keep the level of stupidity down?

    I do like that article, though. I had it bookmarked for a while, and stuck it in my database somewhere.

  6. Oh, and sorry for the double post, but yes, I agree, let’s start by challenging the notion that games have to be violence simulators.

  7. Text-based virtual worlds can have pretty rich avatars

    Whether that is enough to fire the specific responses that Raph is talking about may depend on how adept the viewer is at forming a mental image based on a text description… if the viewer bothers to read it.

    It’s an interesting point, and a good argument for some sort of permission system to allow an avatar to interact with another avatar. A lot of people would enjoy the whole bunny ear thing, but it should be an opt-in activity.

  8. If people are going to bring their baggage anyway, why give them more reasons to complain?

    Why cage the beast when you can build a reserve where the beast can run free?

  9. Animated game pieces. Avatars as roles, tools and props

  10. Avatars aren’t tokens

    So I just remembered that I blogged about the Anatomy of the Avatar sometime ago. I like that what you’ve written here supports, or at least doesn’t obliterate, my somewhat unscientific and nonauthoritative model of virtual identity. 🙂

    I think, however, that tokens can become avatars with imagination (conditioning).

  11. There should be a config flag that you can set which makes everyone turn into amorphous blobs!

    Perhaps we can call it ‘Rational Mode’, which you can turn on when the chat gets heavy, or the roleplay gets slightly too hot. Or, as you say, just replace every avatar with an ASCII avatar, NetHack/Rogue style.

    I suggest this merely because, as you say, you can play the system. The magic circle is shattered. There are players like me (very public guild leader figures) that abuse all of the above ‘hacks’. I hold ‘court’ regularly, and it worries me just how easy it is to manipulate people in a virtual world. No doubt less benevolent types are already doing the same…

    Nice article, Raph 🙂

  12. A Tale in the Desert, now in its fourth tale, changed their avatars like they usually do. They’ve always improved them, until now. One looks like a medieval serf, one looks like 21st century business casual, and one looks like a Persian. It’s very weird, and I miss the mixture of historical and fantasy Egyptian avatars they used to use.

    And to the point, that’s the only reason I’m not playing. I can get used to any change except this one. As I told the developers, if it looks like my avatar doesn’t belong, then I don’t feel like I belong.

    And as an amusing little anecdote, the mention of facial recognition reminded me of when I saw an old girlfriend after about five years apart. She poked me in the arm and smiled at me, and I swear as I looked at her, images of every face I’ve seen flashed over the face as I tried to find a match. Bizarre, yet pretty cool.

  13. as I looked at her, images of every face I’ve seen flashed over the face as I tried to find a match. Bizarre, yet pretty cool.

    Those were the dru— nevermind. 🙂

  14. Druids? Sorry, WoW has a firm hold on my brain…

  15. I believe there is a lot of room for wishing to bring such real-world issues in-world. Depending, of course, on the goals of the world. Educational, and even realism. Take platforms like Sociolotron, where biases, and interpersonal tolerances are built into the mechanics. Then requiring the player-base to deal with those issues.

    Great post! Thanks!

  16. Well thought out points, but do we really want to take the ‘avatars are people too’ argument all the way to the supreme court? Imagine how boring a politically correct RPG would be anyways.

    Also, they dont call them Role Playing games so we can be ‘Dan the Overweight and Underemployed’.

    And when it comes down to it, we have the ignore button, appeals if someone is harassing you or breaking the publishers TOS, or guess what – you can just log out. People are taking this whole ‘avatar’ concept way to seriously.

  17. Good article Raph and thanks for further illuminating this complex subject. There just so much to discuss here…

    The ability for players to choose and customize their avatars is one of the major factors in the appeal and popularity of virtual worlds and MMOs. Avatars in virtual worlds let us transcend, overcome and escape the limitations that we are born with. The skinny boy who was bullied in the playground can now play the muscular hero. The ugly duckling girl with no friends can now be popular and beautiful. Disabled people in real life confined to wheelchairs can now run and even fly. Those are things we should be very proud of when we consider the worth and value of MMOs.

    Although they are only just avatars, something magical happens — we start to care about them. We dress them up, we buy them new things, we take them on perilous journeys. They start to have their own unique stories.

    I often refer to the 8 avatars I have on my WOW server as my “children”. Yes it sounds rather strange but for me each of them has their own needs, wants and backstory. When the play session is over I revert back to my own identity. Just the same way we close an exciting book we are reading so too we always must return through the looking glass back to reality.

    Despite the fact we are all essentially role-playing via our avatars the fact is that we bring with us our real life baggage — i.e. personas, biases, preferences and culture. Designers too bring with them both personal and cultural baggage when they design virtual worlds.

    I suppose it’s unfair to characterize it as baggage, better terminology would be a “frame of reference”. No virtual world or imagined world such as Tolkien’s Midde-earth can completely be free of some kind of reference point that links the reader. This is why concepts like gender and physics are often constants in both real worlds and virtual worlds.

    The important thing to realize is that we need just enough of a frame of reference to make the world make sense without encroaching on the immersive nature (the Magic Circle concept) that makes the virtual world a desirable escape destination.

    Blizzard carelessly crosses that line with their addiction to using pop-cultural references within the World of Warcraft. By doing this they are throwing out a lifeline back to the real world which threatens immersion that they’ve tried so hard to create. It also leaves them open to the charge of sexism as happened in the Noblegarden bunny ears issue.

    As to Tobold’s point about avatars, I think where I agree with him is that we need to at some point need to be able to distance ourselves from them when we log off. Tobold appears to be a more dispassionate about his relationship to his avatars then someone like myself is. That’s fine and understandable. Everyone should be allowed to invest as much of themselves into their avatars as they wish.

    As to Raph’s point, I agree that avatars aren’t mere chess pieces. Avatars are much much more. They are powerful and transformative vehicles that allow us to experience situations, scenarios and worlds that were previously impossible but a few short years ago. The fact that people do *care* about their avatars means that virtual worlds are making an impact and ultimately triumphing.

    Raph is right when he says that due to the advancement of avatar graphics we have shattered the Magic Circle. While this is true, I think virtual world devs need to work even harder to ensure that we pick up those broken shards and shore up immersion in other ways.

  18. Thanks for the link to the book Raph, I need to check that out. 🙂

  19. Raph, didn’t you talk about the convergence of real world identity/persona and online identity/persona at some point? I think I remember reading a topic that pointed out that the more we play a single online identity, the more our real persona and our online persona merge. They merge to the point where they are nearly indistinguishable.

    I know that has happened for me. I’ve been playing Kressilac in every online service for over 20 years now. From MUDs to MMOS, from Forums to Twitter, I’ve always had Kressilac as an avatar and frankly, there’s little difference between his persona and my own. I’ll turn and face someone in real life that calls me Kress just as quickly as someone that says Derek.

    Anyway, that phenomenon seems to support or relate to what your saying in this article.

  20. Morgan sez:

    Why cage the beast when you can build a reserve where the beast can run free?

    That seems to be what these guys have in mind:


    The game is now how many ways and by what means can one reproject the avatar to suggest analyses that befuddle the software IARPA is sponsoring.

    As to the magic circle, it was blown as soon as observing it in action to infer real world properties became a meta-game goal, or it expanded to include the analysts with the magic being one can do as one intends and they see something else, sort of a real world befuddlement spell.

    The same company that invented radar guns invented radar detectors.

  21. […] Recently there’s been some talk about avatars in virtual environments and MMOGs as playing pieces or tokens. Tobold says that “Ultimately your avatar is just a playing piece”, while Raph Koster takes the position that “Avatars aren’t tokens”. […]

  22. When you start relating to avatars in virtual worlds as real human beings, there may be dangerous and unpredictable side-effects.

    I ended up finding a soulmate and moving across the country to be with her. And after many years of real life, I love her more today than ever. (And on the off-chance that she’s reading this… happy early b-day wishes, Kita! 🙂

    I can appreciate why some people want to maintain a distance between themselves and their avatar. But what happens when you close that distance sometimes makes it worth a certain degree of psychic angst.

  23. You know, I just wrote a research paper for a final about this very topic. One of my references that I thought was really good dealt with a study on anthropomorphism in avatars and it’s effects on the way we interact with them.


    Got a wealth of information on this subject if you’re interested, scholarly articles and the like.

  24. Even a name can be an Avatar in this sense.
    I know that my name causes certain reactions. Even though I’m not an actual Christian Pastor, most assume so or if they don’t assume so they at least form that mental image in their head. I am constantly scolded for cussing or gambling online because I’m a “Pastor”.

  25. GREAT link, Sam.

  26. Derek, I’ve long held that avatar representation choices are usually about expressing personality facets… there’s a few things on the site somewhere talking about it in that way, and there’s a small bit in the book too.

  27. @Derek, it’s actually Bartle that tends to go on the “virtual worlds are about discovering your identity” tear for the most part. He’s said it a lot. There’s even attempts to look at that progression in his book based on player type.

  28. So who born after 1980 ever KEEPS their first “TEDDY BEAR”? or “FAV TOY”? the precentage of the answer “me” answers the future for the quality of life in Metaworlds.

    How many Furbys littered the game industries offices in 1999? How many more “Robosapians” died in 2009?

    And dont even think about how many dogs and cats live in central california today around Silly valley and unpaid for houses….:)

    Or how we “teach the children -well”….joni m.

    oh yeah, meta makes it all new and shiny..and we need new laws too…;)

    “Hoppi Wakes Up” 2001

  29. Yes, you need add a psychologist to the statistician, economist and the various other scientists you should have on your initial MMO design team. Sure, it’s not cheap, but failing to consider each and every one of these issues can be even more expensive later.

    Also, there is probably something in the fact that I allways use female avatars. Heh.

  30. Lewis Caroll was a prophet. Alice lives.

  31. the greeks wore masks ..lol

    but isnt it more interesting that when we go all the way back…and look at human history and our manipulation of reality/others that its “humans” that are “said” to be the “avatars” of the gods… and not the “gods” that are created by us as our “avatars”?

    lots of broken toys unless we grow up WITH our toys.

  32. but isnt it more interesting that when we go all the way back…and look at human history and our manipulation of reality/others that its “humans” that are “said” to be the “avatars” of the gods… and not the “gods” that are created by us as our “avatars”?


  33. Goffman was the main textbook in the class I wrote my research paper for. If y’all want more awesome links like the one I dropped a couple days ago, just say so. Most of it’s online anyway.

  34. It depends on the context. In some games, for some players, avatars are just a cursor. In this game http://www.avapeeps.com/ avatars feel like they are just a card in a card game, which is probably less than the game designers wished for. In SL avatars feel much richer, but even there its quite different for different people depending on their in-world activities.

  35. Goffman was the main textbook in the class I wrote my research paper for. If y’all want more awesome links like the one I dropped a couple days ago, just say so. Most of it’s online anyway.

    I just finished reading it today. Your paper’s on my reading backlog; if you’ve got more, I’d be interested.

  36. I’d say that if you can customize your avatar at all, you have already, by the very act of customizing it, imbued it with more significance than a mere token.

    I’d probably also say that un-customizable avatars (do any even exist these days?) that rely on graphics also are more than simple tokens… Heck, I have a certain (though very small) attachment to the Hat and the Car in Monopoly, and those really ARE just tokens and don’t actually represent a hat or a car.

    Obviously avatars aren’t actually people, but in order for a virtual world to work and make any sense at all, I’d say we *need* to imbue those avatars with some significance… otherwise you just have one red dot talking to another red dot. Sure, my tiny, pudgy, short, male, white-haired gnome warrior in WOW may really just be the equivalent of a tiny red dot to the system running WOW, but to everyone who is *using* those systems, he’s not a red-dot, but a tiny, pudgy, short, male, white-haired gnome warrior.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.