I’ve been hunting to see when the word avatar was first used about user puppets in digitally represented or simulated worlds – I’m not sure I’m quite there yet, but this is a start. Neal Stephenson (1992), Habitat (1984-88, paper on it published 1991) and Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985) are the sources I’ve sniffed out so far. I’ve yet to work out whether the word was used about MUDs in the 80s. If you know more, please drop a line in the comments!

The Oxford English Dictionary only mentions avatars in the Hindu sense and has no reference to the etymology of “avatar” in the networked sense, though an OED-related call for information on science fiction usage of words suggests that it was first used by Neal Stephenson in 1992, in Snow Crash (that was in 2000, now the Habitat use antecedes Stephenson’s in the list).

The Encyclopedia of New Media (which I’d not heard of before, but Amazon let me search the full text of it – definitely a book to ask the library to buy) has a succint definition of Avatar written by Lori Kendall. She notes the first use as being in Habitat “in the late 80s” (a mailing list post by Farmer suggests it was actually earlier), and firmly ties the term to graphical representations of users. I nod as I read on, recognising much that I have seen so far in my searches of encyclopedias, newsgroups and the web: “the experience of communicating through online avatars provides an experience that could be considered analogous to that of gods submitting themsevles to the limitations of corporeal existence.” (def. of “Avatar”, page 21) I particularly like the point often made about the Hindu use of avatãra, that the avatar is a partial manifestation of the deity, implying “a certain diminution of the deity when he or she assumes the form of an avatãra” (Eliade, (ed.), Encyclopedia of Religion, pages 14-15 of a hefty and thorough 16 vols.)

In a mailing list discussion on MUD-dev in 2000, the question of when avatar was first used was answered by F. Randall Farmer, one of the developers of Habitat,

The usage of “Avatar” to mean “The graphical representation of yourself in a shared digital world” was first used in 1984-1988 in a product that was then called Lucasfilm’s Habitat. Chip Morningstar coined the usage. I was with him at the time. Yes, it was derived from the Hindi usage. This significantly predates any other similar usage that I am aware of.

In an article written by Morningstar and Farmer, they write that “The players are represent by animated figures that we call “Avatars”. Avatars are usually, though not exclusively, humanoid in appearance. In this scene you can see two of them, carrying on a conversation.” They include a screenshot of what Habitat looked like, too:

Farmer also notes, in his MUD-DEV post, that Stephenson had believed he had coined the term, but when Farmer contacted him, Stephenson corrected the afterword in the paperback edition of Snow Crash – and he writes that

the concept of an Avatar was in several works of fiction prior to the development of Habitat, including Vernor Vinge’s “True Names” and John Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider“.

I can’t get hold of these books before my defence, interlibrary loan’ll take too long, so I can’t check this, but I’m assuming that these books don’t use the word avatar. Though Shockwave Rider sounds amazing, it’s written in 1975 and pretty much predicts our life today, it seems. And it’s definitely about avatars: “He Was The Most Dangerous Fugitive Alive, But He Didn’t Exist!” From the (non-searchable) extract at Amazon:

“Naturally. That’s why I’m here. It may be an atavistic impluse, but I did feel inclined to see with my own eyes the man who posted such an amazing score of new personae.” (page 4)

Posting personae, not using an avatar, it seems.

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar was released in 1985. Unfortunately I haven’t played this game I’ve only had time to play this game for an hour or two, but I’ve been reading about it, and it’s famous:

The quest of the Avatar was to become the Avatar. That was the whole purpose of the game. Where most role-playing games had (and have since) emphasized slaying some big bad enemy or restoring some magical doo-dad, to beat Ultima 4 you had to complete an inner journey where you discovered what the eight virtues (Compassion, Honesty, Honor, Humility, Justice, Sacrifice, Spirituality, and Valor) meant and how to behave in order to be ordained in that virtue. Only the true Avatar could become the embodiment of all eight virtues and unlock the secrets of the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom (Gamespy’s Hall of Fame)

Even the walkthroughs for this game are strange, full of information like “How to improve your Spirituality: Talk to Hawkwind the seer a lot.” or “How to improve your Honesty: Overpay the Reagent seller consistantly and by a lot, and don’t open the chests you find in towns” In another walkthrough you get amusing clashes between the spirituality of seeking a virtue and the mechanics of gameplay: “the hardest virtues for me because, at least for justice, you have to find non-evil creatures! and there just aren’t many.”

The game has been released as freeware and can be downloaded all over the internet. Sourceforge has a project to recreate Ultima IV for modern operating systems, and has alpha versions you can download for Mac OS, Windows, Linux and more – they’re still working on it though, so you can’t play all the way through the game yet. They also have the original version as a free download. There are even mp3s of the music out there, and much of the original printed documentation that came with the game has been scanned and put online.

And then there’s Neal Stephenson’s use of the word avatar in Snow Crash, which probably settled the term in popular usage. Or at least cyberpunk readers’ usage…

As Hiro approaches the street, he sees two couples probably using their parent’s computer for a double date in the Metaverse. He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.

Further reading, the Encyclopedia of New Media recommends, might include T. L. Taylor’s “Living Digitally: Embodiment in Virtual Worlds,” in The Social Life of Avatars: Human Interaction in Virtual Worlds, R. Shroeder, ed. London: Springer-Verlag, 2001; also an article about Habitat in a book which if not on the shelf in my office will certainly be on one of my colleagues’ shelves – and of course on Chip Morningstar’s website: Morningstar, Chip and F. Randall Farmer. “The Lessons of Lucasfilm’s Habitat,” in Cyberspace: First Steps, ed. by Michael Benedikt. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1991.

I’ve been wondering whether avatar might have been used sometimes in discussions of MUDs in the eighties, but I suspect not. In Pavel Curtis’s paper about LambdaMOO, from 1992, for instance, the only mention of “avatar” is as an example of a player’s name. I don’t think you’d choose “Avatar” as your handle if you were used to thinking of avatar as being a general term to describe the character you controlled in the MOO, would you? I can’t remember it in papers I’ve read, but I could have missed something.

6 thoughts on “digital avatars

  1. Dennis G. Jerz

    Jill, a quick search of Google news brings up a 1982 post to net.sf-lovers that refers to a movie called AVATAR and a 1984 post on a variation of ‘rogue’ called ‘avatar’. Just FYI.

  2. Jill

    That was one of the searches I didn’t do. I decided I was procrastinating by imagining I needed to find out EVERYTHING about the word avatar before I could move on and actually write the presentation.

    Of course, since deciding not to research the etymology of avatar I haven’t actually got a lot done.


    I did do some party organising today, though. And I collected my nicely printed, red covered thesis copies. And I reread the appallingest parts of my thesis and thank goodness discovered there are good bits after the appalling bits. Finished is better than unfinished, though, even if that means it’s Not Perfect. Which it sure ain’t.

    There are some good bits though. Honest 🙂

  3. T. Stach

    Hello, I doubt this reply will ever be read, however I was curious if you completed a presentation or paper on avatars? I am doing research in the area of avatars and found this blog entry very helpful!

    Thank you.
    T. Stach

  4. Jill

    The trial lecture for my PhD defence was on avatars, but I never completed it and wrote it out as a paper. Which was rather silly of me, really. Good luck with your research!

  5. T. Stach

    Thank you very much for your response!

  6. glp

    Satyajit Ray, used the term in his films often. The term is originally sanskrit.
    Then, he had an idea for a story. Being famous, of course he was friends with Arthur C Clarke. He discussed the story (this is in the 60’s) he called ‘Alien’. The script for the film floated around Hollywood. Later he would call out Spielberg for stealing the story for E.T. Some who read the original script say he used the term avatar. Arthur C Clarke read the script.

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