Avatar Prelude

I should have watched Avatar 3D yesterday night. But the cinema was fully booked and we will have to watch it some other day. Those who hear the word Avatar for the first time when they see the name on the film’s poster, may wonder what it means. Others will have come across the term when using an internet forum or online community, and still don’t know. I came across it some years ago when working on a virtual presence project at the dawn of P2P. But I only just found the inspiration to look up the meaning… and I am sharing it with you.

According to Wikipedia the term Avatar was first coined by Neil Stephenson for his novel Snow Crash (1992). However, the truth is that the name Avatar was probably created for Ultima IV (1985), an Apple II computer game where the succesful player will see the protagonist turn into an Avatar after having understood the eight vitues and descended into the Stygian Abyss. The name Avatar is coined from the Sanskrit word avatāra which means “descent” – the term is used to decsribe the Hindu equivalent to Christian “incarnation”, whereby a god descends from the heavens to earth. In fact, according to the Wikipedia article, “the Sanskrit noun avatāra is derived from the verbal root tṝ “to cross over”, combined with the prefix ava “off , away , down.”

Ultima IV is among the first of the role playing games. It was first released for the Apple II but then saw its incarnation on other popular platforms such as the Amiga, Atari, Commodore 64, Sega etc.. The name Avatar is, in this sense very adapt as it sees the player descend to adopt the personality of the virtual persona in the computer game. I must have been too young to remember this game and, so I cannot talk about it. But I have found it available for free download, and it is apparently compatible with the Windows platform.

I also haven’t read Stephenson’s book – Snow Crash – but, I am tempted by the Amazon reviews. The book was published at a time when the internet was becoming commercially available. In 1992, Delphi was the first to offer national access to the internet [a brief history of the Internet]. Stephenson’s foresight and the closeness which his “Metaverse” has to the internet, has also motivated academic texts. In Basel (2007), Snow Crash – discovering the Metaverse the author points out that:

the most important contrast between the Metaverse and a traditional gamespace is that the former bends to the whims and desires of the user within a given set of rules, whereas the latter is tailored and controlled by the designer to convey a specific experience to the player. 

I have come across other texts, but have not researched the topic. Jaynes et.al. (2003), The Metaverse: a networked collection of inexpensive, self-configuring, immersive environments, seems like an interesting paper. If you can refer others, please do.

Let me just leave you to Avatar… :)


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