Experiencing a video game world, as filtered through the on-screen avatar, is a situation familiar to millions of gamers. So familiar, in fact, that it's easy to underestimate the importance of experiencing a world in, essentially, another body.

Millions of teenage boys playing Tomb Raider, for instance, are experiencing the world as woman (albeit a fantasy woman in a virtual world.) So what does this do to our understanding of the real world - and how does it make us cyborgs?

Understanding the Cyborg

The word “cyborg” originates from a novel combination of the words “cybernetic” and “organism” by the scientist, inventor, and musician Manfred Clynes in the year 1960. Although most people now think of a cyborg as some science fictional fusion of man and machine, it was coined to describe the artificial life-support systems necessary to support human space travel.

In this interpretation, the human being – equipped to float in space and umbilically tethered to the mother ship – is totally encased in a simulation of Earth, complete with atmospheric pressure, breathable air, water, heat insulation, and communications, among other necessities.

It is not surprising that pioneers of cyberspace have also found this term useful for navigating an embodied experience online, in Earth-bound virtual realities. In his book Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age, Chris Hables Gray explained how being an “online cyborg” felt:

“Five or six hours of being cyborged on-line had incredible effects on my body. When I walked outside into the rain, I felt lighter, not all there. And it was not because my consciousness was still back in that virtual elsewhere in cyberspace where it had just been bumping clumsily (textually) into the other attendees’ projections.”

Through advancements in representational technology, we no longer bump into each other only textually. These interactions are made visible by avatar bodies, which, like the astronaut’s suit, allow for navigation, translation, and support of the body in online space.

Changing Avatar perspectives

David Joselit, an art historian at Yale who has written extensively about representations of ourselves in technology, calls the avatar a “sentient cursor,” due to its function as a projection of agency and mobility in virtual space. While likening the avatar to a cursor for its interactive functions may be accurate, the avatar deserves to be elevated from the status of mere pointing tool.

The word "Avatar" comes from Sanskrit, and traditionally refers to a manifestation of Hindu deities or souls in bodily form. Avatars have been used in cyberculture to describe any representation of an embodied identity, from small static icons to three-dimensional, fully articulated bodies with seemingly autonomous animated breathing, walking, and talking styles.

While it is possible for multiple people to control a single avatar, the avatar represents a single identity with what new media theorist Jay David Bolter calls “identificatory mobility,” which enables the avatar to “inhabit the point of view of any person, animal, or object.”

The converse is also true, and extremely common: one person often controls multiple different avatars.

Switch perspectives: are you your Avatar?

The perspective from which avatars are operated has been broken down into a five point system of action/identification/subject positioning by Mary Flanagan in her analysis of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft.

Croft’s body – created by the media consumptive habits of the predominant demographic of video game players (namely teenage boys) – is not only notoriously over-sexualized, but it often forces its typically male players to identify with a female-bodied character.

Here are the five perspectives she identified:

  • The first perspective Flanagan describes is the omniscient perspective: from which they control the character’s actions and observe the world, unlimited by the perspective of the avatar.
  • The second perspective is described when the character acts independently: breathing or performing other automatic animations out of the user’s control.
  • The third perspective is the second-person perspective: in which users feel as if they are acting next to the character, co-adventuring alongside her.
  • The fourth perspective is of players taking the position of spectator, in which they relinquish control of the character and do not experience her world firsthand: taking a third-person position as though watching a film.
  • The fifth and final perspective is when players act through the character and identify themselves as the avatar.

Avatars and "gender-bending"

Gender remains a hot topic in the male-dominated environs of online gaming – where avatars are ubiquitous – as there is a statistically high possibility that the operator of a female avatar is, in fact, biologically male.

Nick Yee, a researcher of gamers’ behaviors for Ubisoft, created The Daedalus Project, a long-running survey of massive multiplayer online gamers, which analyzed many facets of play such as demographics, motivations, relationship formation, and “gender-bending.”

According to his demographic analyses, 85% of players are male, and male players are three to five times more likely to play as a character of the opposite gender. As a result, he concludes, there is an approximately 50% chance that any female character encountered in the game is being operated by a male player.

Yee offers a number of explanations for this behavior, claiming a pragmatic advantage: female avatars receive more offers for help and companionship. The social stratification of women as weaker and less capable than men bleeds into the world of online games, but is considered an advantage of playing a female character, not a degradation of women in general.

There is a pragmatic consideration for men playing female avatars: if they are going to devote hours – even years – of their lives to these games, they may prefer the scopophilic perspective. He calls this “Lara Croft Syndrome” (there she is again!) “ - the appeal of being able to view and, more importantly, control a female body that is sexy but deadly.”

He argues that this is a technique of domination, giving men the ability to control a powerful female body. But Flanagan’s analysis of the complicated perspectival relationship between avatars and their operators adds nuance to the narrative of men simply controlling female bodies, because of the necessity for users to identify with their characters in the first person, to accompany their characters from a second person perspective, and even to believe that the character is acting autonomously.

The bodies we choose

Tom Boellstorff, an anthropologist who was studying sexuality in Indonesia, simultaneously performed an ethnographic study within the virtual reality of Second Life by conducting fieldwork online using an avatar he called Tom Bukowski.

Second Life’s avatars are three- dimensional and very sophisticated – with a high degree of customizability, especially for those with programming skills. The freedom of self-representation allowed by these avatar bodies often tempts users to project an idealized version of themselves.

Tom Boellstorff’s avatar, Tom Bukowski, was a very similar looking, but slightly younger and more muscular version of himself. He retained his first name, his profession, and his glasses in his Second Life identity, but added tattoos and a hipster haircut to his avatar identity.

”Although an elephant, Rashi offers many possibilities for identity exploration for a man trying to bring together his artistic and managerial talents.”

But not all users project an idealized, younger, or more conventionally attractive version of themselves. Sherry Turkle, who also inhabited an avatar in order to conduct a study on the cybersocial space of Second Life, describes a talented programmer named Joel, who became known on Second Life as an artist for his proficiency at building and programming virtual architecture:

“While many in Second Life build an avatar that is sexy, chic, and buff - a physical embodiment of a certain kind of ideal self - Joel goes in a different direction. He builds a fantasy version of how he sees himself, warts and all.

“He makes his avatar a pint-sized elephant named Rashi, a mix of floppy-eared sweetness and down-to-earth practicality. On Second Life, Rashi has a winsome side but is respected as an artist and programmer. That is, Joel creates beautiful buildings and virtual sculptures by programming at his keyboard; his avatar Rashi gets the credit in Second Life.

“More than being an artist, Joel (as Rashi) also takes charge of things. He organizes virtual building projects and gallery installations. Rashi is the kind of manager Joel wants to be: strict but always calm and nonthreatening. Although an elephant, Rashi offers many possibilities for identity exploration for a man trying to bring together his artistic and managerial talents.”

The Avatar in VR: identity-tourism and white privilege

The identificatory mobility provided by virtual reality, to use Bolter’s term again, allows users to take subject positions wildly divergent from their daily experience, to change species, race, and gender, and perform in ways that would be physically impossible or inconceivably difficult offline. Turkle is one of the more optimistic researchers of identity development and performance in cyberspace.

Many other writers are significantly less optimistic about this. Even Chris Hables Gray who was quoted earlier expounding the sublime feelings elicited by his cyborgization, later quotes Sandy Stone, who points out: “No refigured virtual body, no matter how beautiful, will slow the death of a cyberpunk with AIDS.”

Many feminist writers like Stone have pointed out that the ability to alter one’s identity is most appealing to those who are already in a position of power, namely technologically literate white males, who can afford to masquerade as “Other,” for a short time before retreating to their privileged position. This argument reveals the ways that social privilege is transferred to cyberspace, notably in the performance of race and gender.

Lisa Nakamura, writing on the digitization of race, indicts those who engage in “race play”:

“Rather than ‘honoring diversity,’ their performances online used race and gender as amusing prostheses that could be donned and shed without ‘real-life’ consequences. Like tourists who become convinced that their travels have shown them real ‘native’ life, these identity tourists often took their virtual experiences as other-gendered and other-raced avatars as a kind of lived truth.”

Nakamura cites the prevalence of white male users embodying “exotic samurai and horny geishas” as perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Asians.

Tom Boellstorff admits that Second Life has some problematic policies regarding racialization of avatars’ skin tone, facial and other body features, and hair. Specifically, “That Second Life’s default embodiment was white reflected how ‘the power value of whiteness resides above all in its instabilities and apparent neutrality’... Many residents who designed skins for sale worked to create a range of skin tones, but white or near-white skins predominated and persons seeking darker skins complained of the difficulty in finding them.

Some residents who tried wearing nonwhite skins reported racist responses, including friends who stopped answering ims and statements that nonwhite persons were invading Second Life.”

Boellstorff also mentions communities that work actively to diversify Second Life and the censorship of racist speech by Linden Labs.

Avatars: setting us free from the drab limitations of our bodies

In an online gender-bending scenario, it may come as a shock to the man playing a female avatar to be barraged with sexually harassing messages from his peers.

Both Stone’s aging cyberpunk and performers of other genders and races use technology to have experiences that their physical embodiment will not allow.

In the most utopian post-identity discourses, avatarization can allow users to feel empathy for, even if they are not accurately replicating, the experience of others. Nakamura makes the point multiple times that online, users do not face discrimination that disadvantages them due to their actual bodies. She implores us to remember many people have more pressing issues to deal with in their real bodies:

“In the end, despite academic and commercial postidentitarian discourses, it does come down to [real] bodies: bodies with or without access to the Internet, telecommunications, and computers, and the cultural capital necessary to use them”

However, in an online gender-bending scenario, it may come as a shock to the man playing a female avatar to be barraged with sexually harassing messages from his peers, leading to a deeper – though still superficial – understanding of women’s experience.

The same could be said for those who wish to portray themselves as other races experiencing discrimination, or being called out by other users as perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

In the most optimistic scenarios, these situations raise awareness of social issues in those who, due to their privilege, may have been blind to them otherwise.