Avatar, Assembled

The Social and Technical Anatomy of Digital Bodies

by Jaime Banks (Volume editor)
©2018 Monographs XVI, 328 Pages
Series: Digital Formations, Volume 106


Avatar, Assembled is a curated volume that unpacks videogame and virtual world avatars—not as a monolithic phenomenon (as they are usually framed) but as sociotechnical assemblages, pieced together from social (human-like) features like voice and gesture to technical (machine-like) features like graphics and glitches. Each chapter accounts for the empirical, theoretical, technical, and popular understandings of these avatar "components"—60 in total—altogether offering a nuanced explication of avatars-as-assemblages as they matter in contemporary society and in individual experience. The volume is a "crossover" piece in that, while it delves into complex ideas, it is written in a way that will be accessible and interesting to students, researchers, designers, and practitioners alike.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Avatar, Assembled
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Figures
  • Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: (Dis)Assembling the Avatar (Jaime Banks)
  • The Vitruvian Avatar
  • Avatarial Assemblages
  • This Volume
  • References
  • Part One: The Social
  • Chapter One: Life & Death: The Meaning of (Digital) Existence (Teresa Lynch / Nicholas L. Matthews)
  • Boundaries, Functionality, and the Significance of Life and Death
  • Technological Constraints Shaping Life and Death
  • Consequences and Functioning of Death
  • Layers in the Sociality of Avatar Death
  • Boundaries and Ethics
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Shape & Size: The Body Electric (James M. Falin / Jorge Peña)
  • Creation and Selection
  • Crafting Physiques: Strategies, Limitations, and Motivations
  • Avatar Physiques’ Impact on Players
  • Weight Hacking and Other Futures
  • References
  • Chapter Three: Race & Otherness: The Utopian Promise and Divided Reality (Kristine L. Nowak)
  • Considering the Utopian Promise and the Racial Divide
  • Perspective Taking and Identity Tourism
  • The Utopian Promise—Kept and Broken
  • Futures of Avatarial Otherness
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Boobs & Butts: The Babes Get the Gaze (Jesse Fox)
  • Interpreting the Digital as the Real
  • Social and Biological Roots of Gendered Bodies
  • Fixations and (Hetero)Normative Gazes
  • Objectification or Empowerment?
  • Futures of Sexualized Bodies
  • References
  • Chapter Five: Face & Hair: Looks That Change Behaviors (Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn)
  • Digital Faces Versus Physical Faces
  • Hair as a Key Customization Feature
  • Transformed Social Interactions
  • Digital Doppelgängers—Reflections with Minds of their Own
  • Blurred Boundaries
  • References
  • Chapter Six: Voice & Sound: Player Contributions to Speech (Hanna Wirman / Rhys Jones)
  • The High Cost of Avatar Sound
  • Avatar Voices as Co-Constructed
  • Identification
  • Interpretation
  • Negotiation
  • Voice as Critical to Character
  • References
  • Chapter Seven: Gesture & Movement: Indices of Presence (Sita Popat)
  • Gesturing to Others
  • Gesturing to Oneself
  • Mapping Gestural Qualities
  • Embodied Identity
  • Corporeality and Immersion
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Eight: Names & Labels: Strategic (De)Identification (Mark R. Johnson)
  • Names and Labels as Identity Signifiers
  • Names, Labels, and Gameplay
  • The Safety of the Alphabet
  • Anonymity and High-stakes Gambling
  • Clan Tags and Group Identities
  • The Future of Digital Names
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: Gear & Weaponry: Market Ideologies of Functional and Cosmetic Items (William Robinson / David Calvo)
  • A Snapshot of Functional Items
  • Diablo and a Crisis of Value
  • Digital Items as Buy-In
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: Companions & Vehicles: Permutations of Digital Entities (Rabindra A. Ratan)
  • Digital Companions
  • Digital Vehicles
  • Coming Full Circle … Well, Triangle
  • References
  • Chapter Eleven: Alignments & Alliances: Associations of Value (Kristine Ask / Mark Chen)
  • Alignment Through Alliances: Systems
  • Alignment Through Alliances: Factions
  • Alignment Through Alliances: Players
  • Alignment Through Alliances: Technologies
  • Avatars <3 Alliances
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Twelve: Morality & Personality: Perfect and Deviant Selves (Matthew Grizzard / Changhyun Ahn)
  • Personality and Morality Defined
  • Personality
  • Morality
  • Media Research on Personality and Morality
  • Character Types in Videogames
  • The Interaction of Character and Player’s Personality and Morality
  • Morality and Degrees of Me and Not-Me
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Thirteen: Relationships & Reputation: Part of the Main(frame) (Nicholas David Bowman)
  • Relationships
  • Functional and Ludic Relationships
  • Social and Narrative Relationships
  • Reputations
  • Functional Reputations
  • Moral Reputations
  • A Part of the Main
  • References
  • Chapter Fourteen: Headcanon & Lore: Owning the Narrative (John Carter McKnight)
  • Explicating Headcanon and Lore
  • Gaps, Queering, Fix-it
  • Canon Inputs: Mechanics, Narrative, Appearance
  • Creative and Social Outputs
  • References
  • Chapter Fifteen: Cosplay & Conventions: Exporting the Digital (Nicolle Lamerichs)
  • Costuming and Conventions
  • Embodiment in Cosplay
  • Embodiment and Affect
  • Cosplay as a “Third Layer”
  • References
  • Part Two: The Technical
  • Chapter Sixteen: Rules & Mechanics: Parameters for Interactivity (Andy Boyan / Jaime Banks)
  • Rules and Avatars
  • Mechanics and Avatars
  • Rules and Mechanics in Emergent Play
  • Avatar Control and Parameter Literacies
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Seventeen: Achievements & Levels: Building Affirmational Resources (John A. Velez)
  • What is an “Achievement?”
  • Videogames, Avatars, and Repairing Bad Moods
  • Achievements and Coping with Bad Moods
  • Avatars’ Potential Role in Achievement-Based Self-Affirmation
  • References
  • Chapter Eighteen: Spells & Statistics: Inside the Black Box (Christopher A. Paul)
  • World of Warcraft and the Emergence of Metagaming
  • NBA 2K16, Hero Ball, and Perfecting Myplay
  • Clash Royale and the “Twisted” Meta
  • Avatar (and Player) in a Box
  • References
  • Chapter Nineteen: Class & Role: Frameworks for (Inter)Action (Oskar Milik)
  • Classes, Roles, and Norms
  • Class and Role as Player-Avatar Feedback Systems
  • Social Classes and Interactional Roles
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty: Resources & Inventories: Useful Fictions (Isaac Knowles)
  • A Brief History
  • Resources as Game Artifacts
  • Inventories as Avatar Artifacts
  • Capacity
  • Interactivity
  • Inclusivity
  • Commutativity
  • Inventories as Useful Fictions
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-One: Code & Logic: Procedural Desire (Peter Kudenov)
  • Defining Code
  • Perspectives on Code
  • The Logics Code Implements
  • Procedural Desire
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Two: Glitches & Lag: Unanticipated Variables (Mark R. Johnson)
  • Flying, Bouncing, and Standbying in Halo 2
  • Glitched Characters and Player Experience
  • Lag and Avatar Perception
  • The Fluidity of Digital Bodies
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Three: Pixels & Polygons: The Stuff of Light-Beings (Roger Altizer, Jr.)
  • Avatars as Real Abstractions
  • More Pixels, Better Avatars?
  • Polygons: The Key to 3d
  • A Power Problem
  • The Novelty of Light-Beings
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Four: Embellishment & Effects: Seduction by Style (Dominic Kao / D. Fox Harrell)
  • Juiciness and Instrumentality
  • Toward Embellishment: Effects as Seductive Details
  • Avatar Embellishments and their (In)Efficiencies
  • Simple Avatars Perform as Well as Embellished Ones
  • Dynamic Embellishment Can Improve Performance Over Static Appearances
  • Self-similar Embellishment Is More Impactful
  • Graphical Elements and Ways of (Scientifically) Seeing
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Five: Perspective & Physics: Frames for Play (Ryan Bown / Gabe Olson)
  • Physics in Player-Avatar Connections
  • True Physics are Boring Physics
  • Perspective as an Experiential Frame for Physics
  • Physics as an Experiential Frame for Interactivity
  • Breaking and Bending the Frames
  • Physics and Playful Experimentation
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Six: Mobility & Context: Of Being and Being There (Edward Downs)
  • A Logic of Being
  • Game History as Change in Mobility
  • Motion as Aesthetic
  • Being There
  • Situating Gameplay in the Dialectic
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Seven: Engines & Platforms: Functional Entanglements (Casey O’Donnell)
  • Four facets of Platforms
  • Engines as Philosophical Frameworks
  • The Precision and Messiness of Tools
  • The Importance of Entanglement
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Eight: Interfaces & Mods: Customizing the Gateway (Nathan Stevens / Anthony Limperos)
  • Historical Roots and Rise of Interface Mods
  • Altering the Avatar Gateway
  • From Modding Characters to Modding Players
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Nine: Controllers & Inputs: Masters of Puppets (Daniel Roth / Jean-Luc Lugrin / Sebastian von Mammen / Marc Erich Latoschik)
  • The User as the Controller
  • The Controller as an Input Device
  • Controlling Avatars Through Control Schemes
  • A Brief History of Controllers and Control Schemes
  • Avatar Embodiment and Virtual Body Ownership
  • The Future in Autonomy and Hybrid Systems
  • References
  • Chapter Thirty: Licensing & Law: Who Owns an Avatar? (Tyler T. Ochoa / Jaime Banks)
  • The Limited Logic of License Agreements
  • Copyright and Avatars as “Works”
  • On Joint Authorship and Ownership
  • The Value and Future of Avatar Ownership
  • References
  • Contributors
  • Ludography
  • Index
  • Series index

| ix →


0.1 Vitruvian Elf.

10.1 Triadic model of relationships among digital vehicles, companions, and selves.

11.1 Classic RPG two-axis character alignment model.

19.1 “Holy Trinity” model of class interdependence.

21.1 How a player sees a character versus how code sees it.

24.1 Player-character in Limbo versus that in Braid.

29.1 Closed-loop control (real-time interactive) system for avatar control.

| xi →


12.1 Big Five personality traits with high and low descriptors.

12.2 Five moral foundations with examples.

| xiii →


My sincere thanks goes to the remarkable scholars and designers who contributed to this book, and to my family (human and canine) who suffered fewer gaming sessions, sleepings-in, phone calls, and tennis balls as this book was completed. Thanks to West Virginia University who supported the authors’ conference that helped make this project what it is, and in particular to the Department of Communication and our fearless leader Dr. Matt Martin for support. Thanks also to Cheryl Campanella Bracken, Joe A. Wasserman, and Andrew Gambino for their insight during that conference. Respect goes to myriad game developers who have given us digital bodies to engage. A serious high five goes to the artist Frenone who so brilliantly interpreted the notion of a body that balances human and technology (cover) and of a modern da Vincian avatar (Fig. 0.1). And thanks to Jonathan Blow of Number None and Mads Wibroe from Playdead for generous permissions to reprint their game graphics. ~JB

| 1 →


(Dis)Assembling the Avatar


Arms outstretched, legs prone, buck naked, and staring intensely, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man sketch is the ink-and-paper manifestation of his philosophy that certain proportions and geometries are divine blueprints for the human body and for the universe more broadly (Lester, 2012). In the iconic image, the artist-scientist1 depicted ideal human proportions based on the principles of the architect Vitruvius (c. 1480/1914): a palm is four fingers, a foot is four palms, a cubit is six palms, four cubits make a pace, a man is 24 palms. The anatomical diagram is the combined output of his scientific readings, his own scientific observations and artistic interpretations, and the shared da Vincian-Vitruvian philosophy that divine geometries are the foundations of humanity, its creations, and the universe. “Man is the model of the world,” he noted—reflected in its corporeal microcosm are the mountains (in bones), the tides (in pulse), and the elements (in organs; Schneer, 1983). By some accounts, humans can’t help but look at the world through such androcentric metaphors and parallels—we only understand what it is to be human so we apply human frameworks to nonhuman things to understand our world and our place in it (Bogost, 2012).

In the case of videogames, digital worlds, and other interactive media, these frameworks are often applied to avatars: digital bodies that extend a user’s presence and agency into digital spaces. The term “avatar” is adapted from the Sanskrit avatara, best translated generally as “descent” but theistically as the divine in corporeal form, from ava for “down” and tr for “to cross over” (see Sukdaven, 2012). In this ← 1 | 2 → way, an avatar is a “mythic figure with its origin in one world and projected or passing through a form of representation appropriate to a parallel world. The avatar is a delegate, a tool or instrument allowing an agency to transmit signification to a parallel world” (Little, 1999, p. 3). In its modern form, then, it is a digital delegate for a human to convey intentions and actions through a descent into digital spaces.


The term “avatar” was first used regarding the experience of digital bodies in the novel Songs from the Stars to refer to seemingly “monstrous” entities in computer-generated experience (Spinrad, 1980), and first used to reference on-screen game characters in the LucasFilm roleplaying game Habitat (1985). Cyberpunk fiction—a sci-fi genre characterized by dystopic, high-tech, near-future societies—was pivotal in bringing the concept to the forefront. While William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer (1984) introduced the notion of digital bodies navigating immersive space, the term was later popularized in the cyberpunk novel Snow Crash (Stephenson, 1992) as a simulated human form in the Metaverse, a collective digital reality. Today, it is used quite broadly to refer to representations of users in a range of digital spaces—from a screen name or social network profile image to the complex, animated, graphic bodies such as those found in three-dimensional videogames.

Many early references to avatars (and still many contemporary characterizations) frame them as digital embodiments of a human user’s self, whereby some dimension or the whole of the player’s existence—appearance, behavior, personality, intention—is translated by, reinterpreted through, or transferred to the digital body. Given that human experience draws intimately from the ways that our bodies engage physical environments through our senses (see Shapiro, 2011), it’s not altogether surprising that we should draw on metaphorical digital bodies to engage the content and dynamics of digital games (Martey & Stromer-Galley, 2007) to make sense of the tasks and the fantasies when we cannot draw on all the faculties of our physical bodies. In the fantastical worlds of many multiplayer roleplaying games—and in a host of other game genres—players seek to complete challenges, to get lost in alternate spaces and stories, and to connect with others seeking the same (Yee, 2006). However, our hands cannot cast spells, our feet cannot tread pixelated ground, we cannot respawn after a dragon-breath death, and our human sensibilities cannot likely deal with the carnage inflicted through gameplay combat. So, we rely on complex digital bodies wrapped in “convenient fictions” (Knowles, this volume) to engage gameworlds. These avatars are just human enough to make sense to us, and just nonhuman enough to make sense in the digital world.

Importantly, an avatar’s translational functions—the ability to signify and perform meanings and actions across an interface—emerge out of the relationship ← 2 | 3 → between its parts and its whole. As Vitruvius noted of temple architecture, “there ought to be the greatest harmony in the symmetrical relations of the different parts to the general magnitude of the whole” (1480/1914, 3.1.3). Although most perspectives on videogame and digital world avatars treat them as whole bodies to be controlled, identified with, and interacted through, it is important to consider avatars’ own architectures—what they are made of, how those components are assembled, and how that assemblage is experienced during gameplay. For the sake of discussion, let’s take a Vitruvian Elf (Figure 0.1, a variation on an archetypical roleplaying game avatar). The Elf can cast spells (through its staff and code-driven abilities, per the strength of its statistics), can tread pixelated ground (through the shape of its body, its programmed movement, and its physics), can return from death (according to the narrated rules and mechanics for digital life and resurrection), and can resolve the psychological tensions of murderous activities (via its character story and its imbued moral system). Confiscate any one of these components from the assembled digital body and the player’s experience will be very different.

In perhaps the same scientific spirit that moved da Vinci to effectively deconstruct the human form—recognizing it at once as an organic form and as a technical object (cf. Pevsner, 2002)—the project of this book is to break apart the whole-bodied avatar into its constitutive components. As the Vitruvian Man was articulated according to two centers of the organic body (that of heavenly magnitude in the circle and that of corporeal gravity in the square; Keele, 1983), the avatar is here dissembled according to two functional centers: the social (components supporting its humanness, often through visuals and narrative) and the technical (components supporting its functionality, often through logic and process). And we can perhaps consider, as da Vinci followed the mathematical philosophies of Pythagoras (cf. Stanley, 1687/2010) to suggest that the fitting of the human body into both heavenly and earthly shapes as evidence of dual nature, that avatars through their social and technical components warrant similar consideration—dissembling and associating the sociality and technics of digital bodies. To this end, this book works to consider how the intersections of these components give rise to the da Vincian “vital spark” that makes them real and alive and relevant in contemporary human life (The Lancet, 1902). In other words, in playing avatars, we may need both their human-like and technology-like features for them to seem real as tools for our gameplay, as extensions of ourselves, or as distinct social beings (Banks, 2015).

This anatomical dissembling is not an easy task and, as a result, it may be instinctive to critique some chapters as incomplete or narrow or somehow dissociated from the lived experience of whole avatars. Importantly, this slicing of the avatar is purposeful. As da Vinci noted about the messiness and precision of anatomical work: “you who say that it is better to see an anatomy performed than to ← 3 | 4 → ← 4 | 5 → see these drawings would be right if it were possible to see all these things which are demonstrated … in a single figure, in which with all your cleverness you will not see or acquire knowledge of more than some few veins” (1452–1519/2008, p. 144). This is not to say that as gamers, designers, or scholars that you, the reader, are not discerning, but that the critical dissection of bodies is untidy, imperfect, and sometimes tedious—in contrast to the arousal and fantasy of gameplay—but necessary to fully understand its inner workings. Just as the artist knowing the “nature of the sinews, muscles, and tendons” of the human body is better “able to reveal the nature of man and his customs” (pp. 145–146), one with an understanding of the components and dynamics of avatars will be better able to strategically engage, artfully design, and thoughtfully examine the importance of those digital bodies.

Figure 0.1. Vitruvian Elf.

(Source: Frenone, with permission)


Videogames, gameplay, and players have themselves been described as assemblages (Taylor, 2009), mangles (Steinkuehler, 2008), collusions (Giddings, 2009), and networks (Banks, 2017)—dynamic aggregations of human and nonhuman, digital and physical, and even immaterial elements, from rules and cultural norms to skills and technologies. These characterizations are rooted in network perspectives that originally had nothing to do with games at all. In the 1980s, three sociologists—Michael Callon, John Law, and Bruno Latour—in their sociological works noticed that vast, complex phenomena in the world were actually made from much smaller combinations of material and immaterial things that hung together to sustain the phenomena for extended periods of time. Their approaches focused on identifying material-semiotic relations among these different things—connections through both meaning and through physical associations—such that the world is made up of objects that exist in webs of temporary connections with other objects (Haraway, 1991). Through this lens, things that are immaterial are just as important to making up the world as things that are physically material—they are all actors existing in highly dynamic networks (Latour, 2005).

While that may seem like a hefty and overly complicated philosophy for understanding something as seemingly mundane as videogame avatars, this actor-network framework forces us to do three important things when thinking about digital bodies. First, it forces us to pay attention to the small parts of avatars—the “missing masses” (Latour, 1992, p. 152) of digital bodies. Avatar components like encoded algorithms, covert polygons, and inconspicuous aural “blips” and “boops” make important contributions to avatars, but are often woefully overlooked as inconsequential ingredients of the more legitimate, whole body; by attending to the small bits of digital bodies, we can not only understand each part’s “micronature” as “part(icipant)s” in avatar-mediated gameplay but also their interplays and “mutual ← 5 | 6 → becomings” as the parts contribute to a whole (Giddings, 2009, p. 152). Second, it deprivileges the human in the existence of an avatar (see Harman, 2009) so that we can see the ways that all sorts of things make up digital bodies independent of our interactions with or expectations for them. Since all things exist in webs of relations—whether human or nonhuman, material or immaterial—then all things exist on an even plane, with no one object more important than any other object contributing to a network (Latour, 2005). This is not to say that humans don’t matter at all, merely that a player’s organic, physical body doesn’t dictate the nature of an avatar’s designed, digital body, in whole or part. Each component is a thing-in-itself. Finally, it makes us sensitive to how things are linked together and encourages us to abandon our biases for what counts as a proper set of associations (Latour, 2005).

Take, for instance, the case of one player’s experience of an avatar in World of Warcraft (WoW; Blizzard, 2004; as reported in Banks, 2013). This player, Marc, held as his favorite avatar a male Tauren Druid named Labris. He was a casual gamer, playing mostly with his partner, but his connection with his character was anything but casual. Marc identifies as genderqueer (assigned male at birth) and explained during an interview that he struggles with mainstream, cultural expectations for masculinity in his everyday life, describing feelings that he was never able to settle on a “fulcrum of peace” between how he sees himself and the expectations others have of him. Labris evoked several meaningful stories for Marc. For instance, the name Labris—from labrys, a symmetrical two-bladed axe—was his preferred name for a female character; when he opted for a male character (as a counterpoint to his partner’s female character) he decided to keep the name as reflective of affinities for radical lesbian feminism (Morrow & Messinger, 2006). He also recounted how Labris held a sort of moral system of his own that would govern the actions that Marc would take with the avatar—he saw Labris as a rather gentle soul who occupied a particular stance in the gameworld. Specifically, when faced with the task of completing the infamous torture quest (in which the character is charged with electrocuting a non-player character with a tool called the “Needler” until the NPC gives up “crucial” intelligence), he recounted how as a gamer he wanted to see the quest played out but “[Labris] didn’t do it. I just could not do that quest with him and it made no sense … he would not do that for a whole host of reasons that I know are personal for him.” He also described Labris as representing a balance of roles he wished he could find in life: rugged and strong but nurturing and kind, through having a massive minotaur-like body but serving a patient and loving healing role. Finally, he described Labris as a personal champion; when struggling with his gender in relation to normative masculinities, Marc recounted thinking multiple times daily that Labris was cheering him on: “I can do it. You can do it.”

Taken as a whole digital body dependent on a human user, Labris might be interpreted as a tool for gender identity expression and social and narrative play on ← 6 | 7 → behalf of Marc. But if we pay attention to the small bits that make up Marc’s experience of Labris, we see a host of objects emerge: gender, personality, traits, motivations, social expectations, norms, mental states, emotion, name, histories, politics, relationships, life partner, morality, control, soul, role, cognition, balance, advocacy, encouragement. When one considers each of these “ingredients” of the avatar—some of them formally part of the avatar, some of them outside of but related to the digital body—the avatar can be seen as something more than a tool. It becomes instead a dynamic entity emerging out of the interplays of things inside and outside the game proper, under the player’s control and not, organic and human conditions and structured and technological conditions. Each component of the avatar contributed specific material and meaningful influence and when assembled into a whole body those components were fully engaged as a higher-order component of gameplay. Indeed, research has suggested that avatars may be most important to players—whether as tools to play games, as extensions of identity, or as whole personalities—when they are piecemeal constructions of human-like and technological elements aggregated in meaningful ways (Banks, 2013).


In considering how avatar “parts” become entangled and disentangled during users’ engagements of digital bodies, several problematic and persuasive dualities emerge. That is, there are things that seem like they shouldn’t be separate but are and things that seem they should be separate but aren’t. And each duality comes with an invitation to embrace and challenge it.

Perhaps most evident in this book is the parsing out of those two centers of digital bodies: the social and the technical. While we’ve carved avatar parts into two distinct sections for the sake of organization and highlighting intuitive framings, some might argue that this division is somewhat artificial. Many of the elements in the social half could be argued to belong in the technological half. For instance, “gesture and movement” and “voice and speech” are portrayed here as embodied, expressive components of avatars, but they could just as easily be described as coded, strategic components made real by a series of translations (e.g., voice actor interpretation of a script to actual voiced lines, voiced lines to data, raw data to edited files, edited files incorporated with myriad other components of code). Conversely, “spells and statistics” and “class and role” are presented here as technical dimensions of avatars given their functions in ludic dynamics of gameplay, but they could alternately be considered expressive human-like components, made real by the narrative framings of avatars as embodied, social agents. These tensions of simultaneous sociality and technics importantly call out the inherent, material-semiotic connections among avatar components and the limitations of this volume: ← 7 | 8 → even in breaking the avatar into 60 discrete components, there are even finer components to consider and emergent connections among them. In this vein, I invite you to consider the various components, subcomponents, higher-order phenomena, and complex interconnections of them as you play, design, and study avatars.

A more implicit duality is the popular heuristic for designating things inside digital environments as “virtual” and things in physical spaces as “real.” This division is problematic in that it positions anything digital as unreal—as somehow existing outside the realm of influence and mattering to everyday life, and ignoring the important ways that the digital and the physical are entangled and enmeshed (see Jurgenson, 2012). While it’s important to acknowledge ways that avatars, their actions, and their environments may be apart from physical realities, it’s likewise important to consider how avatars and their components are connected with and do matter in contemporary life. In terms of social elements, it’s useful to consider how social norms are embedded in their appearances, how our concern with weapons and statistical power reflect our values, and how bits of the digital can be exported to physical spaces in meaningful ways. In terms of the technical, we can see exemplars for humans’ penchants for control and freedom in how we break avatars’ rules, see the importance of playful experimentation in how we engage avatar glitches, and find a history of human innovation in the history of avatar graphics. While each may depend on variations on and interplays of materiality (the digital and the physical), I invite you to consider how each of them are decidedly real.

Finally, you’ll see played out in this book’s chapters a shifting between “games” and “digital worlds” and between “characters” and “avatars.” While games can be worlds and worlds can be games, the two are not the same—games rely specifically on challenge systems with specific rules and valued outcomes (Juul, 2011), while worlds are aptly characterized according to their internally consistent properties that move us to engage and believe in them (cf. Klastrup, 2008). Similarly, a character can be an avatar and an avatar can be a character, but the two are not the same—characters are digital bodies with predefined or emergent personas, while avatars are generally understood to be those bodies that are user-created and controlled. In the chapters that follow, you’ll see authors referring to one or the other, or even both, in many ways because the principles apply to both and to the similarities among them. Your invitation here, then, is to consider the ways that their differences might matter in how we consider these avatar components. That is, how do gameful challenges, worldness, predefinition, and player creativity contribute to how digital bodies emerge and the ways that they matter in player or user experience?

Although this book is organized in two sections, following from the invitations above it need not be read in a linear fashion or even assuming the concreteness of those categories. Rather, these sections are intended to offer a hint as to the authors’ theses about how the component may function in relation to other components. You’ll see the 60 avatar components (two in each chapter) addressed ← 8 | 9 → from perspectives ranging from the scholarly domains of social science and critical/rhetorical studies to the practical domains of game design and law. This multidisciplinary crew of experts may come from diverse backgrounds, but they are all gamers and/or digital world denizens themselves.

In Part One addressing the social, the authors consider avatar components most likely to contribute to the avatar’s humanness or sociality. They are the dimensions of the digital body that support the perception of personhood—that the avatar is a legitimate social being—which tends to rely on the game’s narrative framework or on the avatar’s visual properties, most often with links to the formal elements of gameplay. In Part Two, chapters address avatar components that emerge principally from the digital body as a technology—as a collection of influences from graphics, code, rules, processes, and devices. Each author has endeavored to offer some new contribution to how we think about and engage these components, from thinking about glitches as strategic advantages rather than errors to considering cosplay and conventions as exporting the digital into physical space so that the player becomes the avatar’s avatar. These new ideas are intended as springboards for considering ways that avatars and their components matter in contemporary life. In parallel to da Vinci’s musings that man is “the world in miniature,” perhaps the avatar can be considered man in miniature, a representative assemblage of our constellated social and functional bits.


Banks, J. (2017). Multimodal, multiplex, multispatial: A network model of the self. New Media & Society, 19(3), 419–438.

Banks, J. (2015). Multimodal, multiplex, multispatial: A network model of the self. New Media & Society, 19(3), 419–438.

Banks, J. (2013). Human-technology relationality and self-network organization: Players and avatars in World of Warcraft. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University.

Bogost, I. (2012). Alien phenomenology: Or what it’s like to be a thing. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

da Vinci, L. (2008). Notebooks. (I. A. Richter, Sel.; T. Wells, Ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original works published 1452–1519).

Gibson, W. (1984). Neuromancer. London: HarperCollins.


XVI, 328
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (January)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. 16 pp., 7 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Jaime Banks (Volume editor)

Jaime Banks (Ph.D., Colorado State University) is Assistant Professor at West Virginia University’s Department of Communication Studies. Her social scientific work is animated by questions about how digital games influence how we see ourselves and about how humans relate to the technologies they use. She is a research associate at WVU’s Interaction Lab, was the founding Chair of the National Communication Association’s Game Studies Division, and serves on the editorial boards of Communication Research Reports and the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media.


Title: Avatar, Assembled