The concept of avatars has undergone a significant evolution over the centuries, from its mythological beginnings to its modern technological applications. This essay aims to explore the history of avatars, emphasizing the issues and ambiguities that have arisen as the term evolved, and culminates in a contemporary definition as posited by Rabindra Ratan and Swati Pandita in their work “Avatar, a Lasting Definition.”
The journey of the avatar begins roughly 3000 years ago in Hindu religious scriptures. In these texts, the term “avat?ra” described the incarnation of a deity, particularly Vishnu, descending to Earth in a tangible, physical form. This concept was deeply rooted in religious and philosophical contexts, symbolizing divine intervention in the human realm.
Western Adoption and Literary Uses
Fast forward to the late 1700s, the term “avatar” found its way into Western parlance, primarily due to the increased interest in Sanskrit and Hinduism by Western scholars. The 19th century saw the term’s entry into fictional literature. Notable examples include Théophile Gautier’s “Avatar” (1856) and Poul Anderson’s “The Avatar” (1978), where the term began to diverge from its strictly religious connotations, hinting at the broader idea of transformation or alternate embodiments.
Video Games and Virtual Worlds
A significant leap in the concept of avatars occurred in the 1980s with the advent of video games. Games like “Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar” (1985) and “Habitat” (1986) introduced the concept of a player’s representation in a game world. This usage marked a pivotal moment, shifting the term avatar from literary and spiritual contexts to that of digital self-representation.
The 1990s witnessed a surge in the term’s popularity, particularly through Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash” (1992). Stephenson not only popularized the term “metaverse” but also described avatars as representations of users in a virtual world. This period marked the widespread adoption of the term in video games and social platforms, aligning with the modern understanding of avatars as digital self-representations.
Research and Contemporary Applications
The 2000s saw a rise in academic interest in avatars, leading to their accelerated adoption as self-representations in games and virtual environments. The 2010s further expanded the application of avatars across various domains such as work, social platforms, health, and education. The emergence of virtual influencers and robots, also termed “avatars,” highlighted the term’s versatility.
Definitional Ambiguities and Challenges
Despite its widespread use, the term avatar has faced definitional ambiguities, particularly in cases like doppelgänger avatars—mediated representations not controlled by the person they represent. This ambiguity challenges the traditional perception of avatars as entities controlled by their human counterparts. Furthermore, the distinction between avatars and agents becomes increasingly blurred with advancements in artificial intelligence, leading to questions about self-awareness and control in avatar representation.
A Lasting Definition
In their work, Ratan and Pandita propose a definition of an avatar as “a mediated self-representation that an intelligent user controls during dynamic interactions.” This definition aims to respect the term’s historical origins while anticipating future models of avatar-mediated communication. It emphasizes user control and interaction, addressing some of the contemporary ambiguities around the term. By focusing on the user’s control rather than the avatar’s appearance or autonomy, this definition seeks to clarify the boundaries of what constitutes an avatar.
The history of avatars is a testament to the term’s adaptability and evolving nature. From divine incarnations to digital representations, avatars have mirrored technological and cultural shifts. The definition proposed by Ratan and Pandita marks a significant step in understanding avatars in contemporary contexts, laying a foundation for future research and applications. As technology continues to advance, the concept of avatars is likely to further evolve, reflecting the changing dynamics of how humans interact with and through digital mediums.
- Ratan, R., & Pandita, S. (2023). Avatar, a Lasting Definition: A mediated self-representation that an intelligent user controls during dynamic interactions.