Blurring the boundaries of a unified phenomenon of bound contours
There is an almost unquestioned consensus in the virtual worlds’ research communities that an avatar is the representation of a user and player in front of the screen and that the relationship between the two predominantly is about identity and self-construal. Richard Bartle’s (2004) influential work and his claim that “it is all about identity” (Ibid: 161) has been widely adopted. In many studies this conception has been explored and substantial contributions have been made (Downs 2010, Filiciak 2003, Fox & Bailenson 2009, Jin & Park 2009, Wang & Chang 2004, and Yee 2006). In this paper, I will, however, question the consensus and conception to suggest that we nuance and broaden our understanding of the relationships of avatars with their owners. The question that I will set out to answer is: In what ways do actors make sense of their choice and design of avatars? The empirical basis for addressing this question is found in iterative video interviews with actors while they act in their chosen virtual worlds and with their avatars. The video interviews have been conducted in situ together with actors on the locations of their usual play and practice – be it at home or at their work place. Over time, when located beside the actors while they act and engage, gradually the conception of an avatar as the representation of an actor has become questionable. The methodological approach of the in situ video interviews is summarized by the notion of “following the actors,” even if it is also recognized that the optic of the researcher is different from that of the engaged actor, who is seen as the expert of his or her engagement and agency. During the interviews, as a researcher sitting beside the actors discussing their relationship with the chosen avatars, increasingly the performative aspects of the relationship has influenced the theoretical understanding explicated by this paper, and it has blurred the boundaries of a seemingly unified phenomenon with bound contours. Thus, a performative phenomenon in flux has emerged and become ever more visible during the in situ studies. Hence, the paper suggests that we nuance our analysis and explicate the multiple and emergent constructions as well as the stabilizing interpretations of the relationships between actor and avatar. Semiotics (Bakhtin 1981, 1993, Nöth 2009, Peirce 1994), and actor-network theory (Latour 1998, 2005, Law 2004) are some of the theoretical references that will assist and enable such analysis. Thus, this paper will discuss how the methodological approach inspired by visual ethnography (Grimshaw 2001, Pink 2001, 2006) and the theoretical analysis of the phenomenon of avatars have mutually constructed and contributed an understanding that emphasizes the multiplicity of the performative phenomenon. Following the methodological reflections and the theoretical analysis, the paper concludes that the relationships of actors and avatars 1) continuously oscillate and change, and they 2) translate and transform the actors and their agencies when enacted and performed. It is suggested that the understanding of avatars as mediators in relations of companionship will help us interpret and understand avatars as a performative phenomenon in flux and with blurred boundaries.