Taken from the Hindu word for the earthly incarnation of a god, an avatar has come to mean not only a user's digital representation in a video game or virtual world but also the discrete persona a user may take on when interacting with a specific computer environment.
An avatar is:
|“||graphical images representing people within the new media arena. You can build a visual character with the body, clothes, behaviors, gender and name of your choice. This may or may not be an authentic representation of yourself.||”|
The term avatar was popularized by Neal Stephenson's novel "Snow Crash":
|“||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.||”|
Avatars generally can respond to ad hoc human control, such as in a videogame where the character can move, turn, jump, attack in immediate response to the game player's directions expressed through joy sticks, buttons, and similar controls. Users can create avatars to represent themselves in on-line interactive discussions and in virtual worlds like "Second Life."
In Second Life, new users can choose from among 12 pre-made avatars when they register; after registration, users can customize their Second Life avatars to a much greater extent. The world advertises that, "you can change your clothes, your skin, your hair, your shape and even your gender. You might even choose to make your avatar something nonhuman such as a fish, a robot, or maybe even a potted flower. The only limit is your imagination."
Some obvious questions will arise from this technology: Can one copyright one's avatar? Does this bring into play other legal issues like trademark and right of publicity? Can an avatar become a "person" in the way that corporations are considered legal persons? And if so, can an avatar own a copyright? Can an avatar own a copyright in itself as a fictional creation?