When thinking about avatars and self representation in digital environments, my mind keeps jumping back to 2006, when the Nintendo Wii first came out.
My cousin/next-door neighbor/best friend got the Wii, and we were both pretty excited to break it in. When we found out we can create our own avatars, or Miis, we’d spend hours perfecting our features and creating a Mii for each of our favorite characters from various movies and television shows. These avatars were very different from those in Second Life, however. In SL, the users customize the smallest details like shoe sizes and shirt cuts, as Yee and Bailenson mention. On top of that, users control the actions of their avatars—as it was not as simple as picking an outfit and moving onto the game.
Just like in the offline world, in the online world, appearance matters and affects the way others interact with us. For example, if I sported a Knicks t-shirt or jersey in Second Life, another Knicks fan passing by may be more likely to stir up conversation than when I didn’t. By choosing to interact or ignore an individual in a game like Second Life, we reveal a lot about virtual self-representation. The most important fact being—self representation matters, even in online settings.
I was so uneasy about being misrepresented in Second Life, that I opted for a robot avatar. I couldn’t find attire suitable for a human avatar, and since the way I dress in real life is closely connected to my beliefs and identity, I found it wrong to have a Second Life contrary to that. I felt safer and more comfortable as a robot, so as to build a wall between my real self and my virtual self.
Factors like clothing and body type I think are prominent elements of personal representation online. Users can zoom in and out as far as they want, change camera angles, etc. whenever they want, no matter who is in the frame. Elements of sound (voice) and touch are missing from these online interactions, however.
As virtual and intangible as online avatars are, they represent a very real human being.