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Avatar, Assembled

The Social and Technical Anatomy of Digital Bodies


Edited By Jaime Banks

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.
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Chapter One: Life & Death: The Meaning of (Digital) Existence (Teresa Lynch / Nicholas L. Matthews)


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Life & Death

The Meaning of (Digital) Existence


Life and death have been the focus of philosophical quandaries throughout human history. In contemporary culture, these matters extend into digital realms, inspiring questions about the boundaries and values of avatar life and death. Avatars do not live and die in corporeal senses, rather we draw on the life/death metaphor as we would for batteries or stars. Yet, functionality alone does not define avatar aliveness. An avatar’s life emerges through a player’s interaction with social and technical gameworld constructs. Developers simulate life and death using a variety of biological signals and social norms, thus encouraging a sense of the avatar’s aliveness and death. This sense gives significance to the avatar, the relationship with the avatar, and gameworld itself.


The term avatar derives from the Sanskrit avatara, referencing the Hindu notion of a transformative alighting of an immortal deity to an embodied state (Parrinder, 1997). Whereas Hindu deities descend by taking physical forms, players descend into a gameworld by taking on digital bodies. An avatar’s life does not begin with birth, but initiates upon player creation. Players descend into avatars, assuming control through technical components bounded by hardware (e.g., the game console) and software (e.g., programming). The player’s descent into the ← 13 | 14 → avatar is a necessary but insufficient...

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