My mini me has flawless hair and skin. She’s short like I am, but more attractively proportioned. Her nose is prominent like mine but more statuesque. Her blue eyes are clear and bright, the not-so-fine lines that have crept up alongside my own eyes nowhere to be found. And the clothes she wears, well, let’s just say her wardrobe hangs on her with a stylish perfection. Mine … not so much.
She’s little more than a cartoon, but still, my mini me – my avatar – I can’t help it, I wish I was her.
When Microsoft’s New Xbox Experience launched last week, it brought with it not only a host of changes to the way players interact with their Xbox 360s, it also brought avatars. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Avatars are these little computer models that act as our representatives in the digital world. We create them in our likeness (or in our what-I’d-like-to-be-ness) and send them forth into the vast digital beyond, controlling their every move from the not-so-vastness of our real-world lives.
It’s all very “Matrix” and, of course, it’s not exactly a new phenomenon. But still, avatars seem to be popping up everywhere these days – acting as our surrogates in online forums, in instant messages and, increasingly, inside video games and the machines that play them.
But who are these doppelgangers? Are they nothing more than digital dolls for us to play dress up with? Are they us? Are they more us than us? And more to the point, why do we love them so?
Mii vs Me vs Me
Two years ago, Nintendo exhibited a stroke of genius when it made avatars an integral part of the Wii gaming experience.
Using a simple avatar-building tool, Wii owners could create 3-D caricatures of themselves called Miis. You could make your Mii tall, short, skinny or fat. You could select and customize all manner of facial features – the shape and placement of the eyes, nose and mouth, the style of the hair, the color of the skin. You could give your Mii a mustache or a beauty mark, and while you could put that mustache under your Mii’s nose where it belonged, you could also put it on its forehead just for fun.
Though Miis always ended up looking like bobble-headed cartoons in the end, it was surprising just how much they could capture the look of a real person. Meanwhile, your mini-Mii could be imported into games like "Wii Sports" and “Wii Fit” so that when you played, you got to see yourself right there on the screen.
Making Miis turned out to be a huge hit, so much so that Nintendo launched the “Check Mii Out Channel,” a forum that turned the creation of avatars into something of a competition.
Microsoft knows a good thing when it sees it and has made avatars an integral part of the newly gussied up Xbox 360 interface. These avatars are still cartoony, but more chic and less kiddie-like than the Miis. And while their look is more detailed in many ways, customizing them can also be more restrictive. For example, you do have a closet full of clothes to dress your Xbox avatar in (unlike the Miis). However, if you want to give your Xbox avatar a moustache, you will not be allowed to put said moustache on its forehead.
Xbox Live General Manager Marc Whitten says they put a lot of thought into the style of the new avatars, which, like the Miis, can be imported into games (check out “A Kingdom for Keflings” and “Scene It? Box Office Smash.”)
“What was important to us was to come up with something that was expressive and allows you to have a sense of personality and style,” he says.
The Xbox avatars are a hip bunch indeed. It seems that no matter how jacked up you make them, they always end up looking adorable and well turned-out.
Whitten says they were also keen to avoid creating avatars that seemed to come from "the Uncanny Valley" – that place where the digital people look almost exactly like real people … except not quite.
This is a place Sony execs are, clearly, not afraid to go. In the coming months, they’ll jump aboard the avatar bandwagon when they launch “Home.” This virtual community will allow PlayStation 3 gamers to interact with each other using avatars so real looking it is, indeed, uncanny ... and also kinda cool.
As a beta user of “Home,” I found that Sony’s avatar tool allows you to tweak almost every facet of your doppelganger – the pitch of the nose, the length of the jaw, the thickness of the neck, the height of the skull. You can give yourself wrinkles, jowls or a crooked nose. It’s like molding a person from digital clay.
It’s like playing god … with yourself.
More real than reality
No wonder people are so gaga for avatars. The power!
But it’s not so much about playing god as it is about connecting with people and expressing yourself, says Philip Rosedale, a man who knows a thing or two about avatars.
Rosedale is the founder of “Second Life,” an alternate world that exists only online. In this place, millions of real-world people have created virtual versions of themselves that they use to explore a vast virtual land and to socialize with each other.
“We used computers to make ourselves more alone for the first 20 years of their meaningful existence,” Rosedale says. But now that we live in a networked world, he says, people are driven to use technology to connect.
Whitten agrees. “When you look at what’s happened in entertainment and on the Internet, it’s about moving from my relationship with a piece of technology to my relationship with other people as expressed through this piece of technology,” he says.
And that’s where avatars come in.
Xbox Live is a service that allows gamers to connect with each other via the Internet so they can play games, chat and compare scores. And once people connect in this way, Whitten says, “they’re hungry to identify who they are.”
I’ll say. As a child, playing with dolls and dressing them up seemed like a pointless exercise to me. And yet, I have spent at least an hour crafting each of my game console avatars, carefully selecting every facial feature and every item of clothing in an attempt to represent myself as accurately as possible. I find it utterly absorbing.
I also find that playing god with myself is harder than I thought it would be. When presented with vast opportunities to mold my image – especially in the case of the “Home” avatar – the choices were downright daunting. Do my eyes look like this? Or this? Do these cheeks really capture who I am? Does this chin say “Winda”?
And who is this avatar any way? I mean, is this really supposed to be me? After all, she’s nothing but some prettied-up ones and zeros. Surely I add up to more than that.
Rosedale believes that, in some ways, she’s more me than, well, me.
He points out that the real world is filled with avatars – people who have carefully crafted their persona using their clothes, hairstyle and makeup. Some even use plastic surgery to carve themselves into the image they desire.
“We are creatures of our own imaginations,” Rosedale says. “We each want to project a certain identity in the world around us. In the real world we do that in a lot of ways – the clothes we wear and also in the places we choose to live. We make choices about the art we hang on our walls. We make all kinds of choices in the world that, when presented to other people, say something about who we are.”
And so Rosedale believes digital avatars can be an even more realistic representation of who we are because, in creating them, we aren’t limited to the clothes hanging in our closet or the coif we’re able to tease our hair into or the nose genetics dealt us. Unconstrained by the cold hard realities of a physical world, we can make our digital avatars into our truest vision of ourselves.
Sure, some people argue that digital worlds are full of people masquerading as someone they’re not. But Rosedale insists that just isn’t the case. “If you enable people to modify themselves more, they tend to project more of their real personality,” he says.
It’s enough to inspire an existential crisis, but I do see what he means. After all, that person I see in the mirror – I’m not always sure she’s really me either.
In fact, when there’s not a mirror to reflect the harsher realities of my physical attributes, I imagine myself with flawless hair and skin. In my mind, I am short – but perfectly proportioned. My nose is prominent but in a statuesque way. My blue eyes are clear and bright, with nary a fine line. And the clothes I wear – they hang on me with a stylish perfection.