Paper Idea: Avatar Creation and Online Identity

There is a reasonable amount of existing work in the area of avatars and online identity. Many researchers have commented on why people style avatars like themselves (or not like), identified the avatar as an extension of the self, etc … However, I do not know if I’ve ever seen a formal structural analysis of an avatar creation system which was then tied back into some critical identity theory.

It should come as no surprise, then, that I am entertaining the idea of performing such an analysis and relating the results (somehow) back to identity theory/politics. I’m leaning towards a structural analysis of the World of Warcraft avatar system for the following reasons.

  1. I am very familiar with World of Warcraft lore, players, interactions, etc. I’ll be able to focus my efforts on the analysis and creation system without spending lots of additional time just learning about the space.
  2. The avatar creation system is fairly simple compared to other MMOGs. There’s definitely enough content for a full length paper but I might be able to avoid getting lost in the minutiae of avatar systems like those in Second Life.
  3. I “get” phenomenology but feel like my understanding of structural theory/analysis needs more practical reinforcing.

What I worry about is confusing the “phenomenological” questions with the “structural” questions. I believe players choose certain avatars to represent identities they want to explore in the game, but that seems to deal with an individual’s intention which is more of a phenomenological inquiry. Structuralist inquiry would center more on how the structures/interactions/limitations/options/etc of the interface shape the avatar and identity choices available to the user?

Perhaps the paper needs a bit of both approaches to have some real explanatory power, but I definitely want to focus on structuralism. I think.



  1. Kelly Boudreau

    I have done some work on Role Theory, Structural Functionalism and Identity in EverQuest (among other identity / mmo related work) and would be quite interested to see what comes of this idea =) Would be very interested to read the outcome.

  2. jeffreybardzell

    First, I think this is a very workable concept and would be a timely bit of research, if done well.

    Second, I don’t think you should burden yourself too much up front with whether you are more phenomenological or structural. As you think more, and figure out what aspects of the WoW avatar system you are going to study, this will become more obvious. I mean, if your goal is to understand how people create avatars in order to represent aspects of their online selves, then that question lends itself to phenomenological analysis; you are at that point looking at intention, interpretation, and coherent self-expression.

    But if your desire is to look at how the interface itself encourages or conditions certain meanings, then you are probably more in a structuralist frame of mind. Or if you look at an avatar as a form of discourse, and its creation as a syntagmatic process filled with paradigms of options, well then that one just screams structuralism.


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