Finally, in that moment, the strangeness of such a request struck me head-on. There I was in Sacramento, there she was halfway across the country, and here we were together traveling through cyberspace, or cobrowsing, seeking a place where she could settle. Later, I started wondering what defines an avatar in a computing environment. Must it do certain things to be called an avatar? Does it have to wear skirts that are way too short and heels that are way too high? Or is it required to spend an unnatural amount of time at the gym? N.B.: Second Life. I found that an avatar is any image, icon, or other representation of a user in a virtual reality environment (a computer environment represented by multiple users).
Interestingly, the Sanskrit word Avatara means “the descent of God.” According to India’s ancient Veda’s, avataras incarnate onto earth-- immune from those pesky physical laws of matter, time, and space. Then I got it. The desire to create identities and environments might represent characteristics not unlike those that the cliche “playing god” brings to mind. I was not at all surprised then that this word developed to define our all-powerful, non-destructible, matter and space defiant anonymous alter egos. That’s the why of it, but who thought of this and when? And did they know about the sacred Avatara beings?
Sean P. Egen wrote an enlightening article on the history of avatars. That history has many grey areas, but it is relevant to note that avatars appeared in the fiction genre, cyberpunk, with the publication in 1984 of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Then they appeared in Neal Stephenson’s classic Snow Crash in 1992.
When my 11 year old virtual customer asked me to take her to an avatar chat room with her 7 year old cousin, I was at a loss. Aren’t avatars just for adults? She taught me the first rule to kid-endorsed avatar web-sites: blatant educational elements are not allowed. She was completely savvy on me when I took her to Whyville. “Not Whyville, they make you take tests.” So, sometime between after-school snacks and dinner, my in-house community consultants introduced me to some kid-approved and adult-approvable avatar sites.
At Webkinz your avatar choices include a selection of cute fluffy animals. There are two levels-- one uses pre-constructed messages and one requires parental permission. Neopets is innocent fun. More surreal than Webkinz, your avatar pet has the kind of distorted body part thing going on that we’ve come to expect from avatars. Confession: I have a neopet that I almost starved to death. The kids did not tell me that I actually had to feed it. At Club Penguin you create a penguin, give it an identity, and then waddle around meeting new penguin friends. I haven’t explored this one much, but I just may after recently watching the fascinating documentary March of the Penguins. At Toontown, players combine forces to rescue the world from the Cogs, humorless business robots who are attemping to transform joyful Toontown into a corporate metropolis. Sound familiar? Don’t expect the shiny-bling-in-your-face elements of the adult avatar sites, but do expect your child to hone their technology skills by using them. These sites are winners for parents and children. See you in cyberspace... ~Jami, Youth Services Librarian