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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 Twenty-Seven: Engines & Platforms: Functional Entanglements (Casey O’Donnell)


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Engines & Platforms

Functional Entanglements


Avatars are built upon and play within black boxes—various technologies and tools used to create videogames and digital worlds. In particular, game engines (the software systems upon which games are developed) and platforms (computational frameworks) have significant design impacts on the games that they are used to create. Exploring the entanglement of designer, engine, and computational platform is a useful framework for thinking about design and the broader social/cultural implications of games and avatars.

When we think about avatars, we often think about the places and spaces that they inhabit, and about the kinds of activities and actions they allow us to perform. Avatars are our conduit through which we explore, play, and sometimes shape digital worlds. While much attention has focused on players’ identification with avatars, little work has examined the complex intertwining of social and technical systems that predicate avatars’ very existence. In its simplest form, every avatar is made. Sometimes they are made or modified or constructed by players or users, but often they are based on some predetermined set of options (see Falin & Peña, this volume). Avatars and their worlds are constrained by the possibility space that their underlying game engines and the platforms that support them.

In trying to understand these intertwinings, it’s useful to acknowledge a sentiment by sociologist John Law, that when we try...

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