What is a computer avatar?

A computer avatar is a custom graphic file or rendering that represents a computer user. There are basically two types: those used on websites, such as on web trading boards, and those used in games and virtual worlds.

Avatars can be detailed images used in web games.

The simplest type of avatar is a small graphic file used on websites. Sites that offer chat boards often allow members to upload an image to represent themselves. The avatar can be a real-life digital photo of the person wearing it, but it’s more often an image meant to be a creative alter ego. It can be a game-rendered snapshot of a beast, hero, or heroine; a humorous image of a pet or cartoon character; or a design that makes a statement. The image appears next to the user’s posts, easily identifying the author to others.

Avatars can be computer-generated characters that can be customized.

Sometimes a site offers a generic pool of avatars for those who haven’t created their own. Typically, the user replaces the generic image as soon as he learns to create a personal image. Many websites that offer services that use avatars provide instructions on how to create and upload them.

While web users have static graphic files as avatars, in virtual worlds, the avatar is a fully rendered interactive character. In many cases, all aspects of the character can be customized using an interface with sliders to change features such as body type, hair, skin, and clothing. The avatar in a virtual world walks through the computerized landscape for the user, manipulating the environment. Mouse and keyboard movements move the character and cause him to perform a variety of actions. He can walk, run, jump, fight, fly, shoot, dance, scream, pick up objects, open doors or even create objects.

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In virtual worlds like SecondLife.com, the degree of uniqueness the avatar reflects says something about the experience of the user who controls it. There’s no clearer way to advertise yourself as a newbie than trotting through a virtual world wearing a generic avatar when there are customization options.

The virtual world avatar also has an inventory, unlike the web-based ones. The inventory includes items that the character has collected, earned, or purchased. In games, this can include things like tools, weapons, ammo, and food. The non-player avatar can collect clothing, accessories, club memberships within the virtual world, pets, vehicles, virtual currency and many other items. The virtual world software remembers the character’s most recent appearance and inventory and restores them each session.

In Hindu mythology, an avatar is a deity that has taken on an earthly form, most often that of a human, in order to bring a higher consciousness to the land that the Hindu gods created. As humans create virtual worlds, the computer version can be said to represent the human incarnation in his own creation. Religious affiliations aside, the computer avatar has a rich and conceptually provocative namesake.

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