The concept of avatars within computer gaming has existed for as long as computer games themselves, as the avatar is the character the player controls whilst playing; the manifestation of their will within the game as they play. Within computer games in the past few decades this was hardly a noteworthy thing. In Pong for example, the players avatar was simply a ‘bat’ that could only move up & down; or games like Pac-Man where the players avatar was simply a yellow circle with a mouth that traversed a simple maze. Within the past decade or so however, the avatars players have been given to control & enforce their will upon the games environment has grown immeasurably; not only in the detail of the avatar itself, but in terms of the amount of action & interactivity the player has with the surrounding environment through their avatar.
Even so, some particular games offer significantly more advanced avatars in the forms of customization, advancement & development. One of the genres best known for the depth in which players can create & develop their own avatars is the genre of role-playing-games (RPG’s). The majority of true RPG’s (i.e. the Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, World of Warcraft, Baldurs Gate, etc) allow characters to personalize nearly every aspect of the character & go about playing the game in the manner they see fit; be it how they follow quests & storylines, how they develop their avatars abilities, & how they interact with other characters & players within the game world.
One of the most well-known, & certainly easily one of the most successful games which allows players to create & customize a unique & personalized avatars to explore the game is Blizzards MMO-(Massively Multiplayer)-RPG World of Warcraft. Within the World of Warcraft (Often referred to as WoW), the very first action the player must take upon starting the game is to choose which faction, class, race & gender their character will be; & upon deciding on this they must then decide upon their characters skin tone, facial design, hairstyle & colour, as well as any facial hair of other decorations which they would like to have, before choosing a unique name for their character & entering the world. The player is effectively given a blank slate & allowed to create almost any character they like to their own specifications.
When presented with character creation the player is allowed to choose from eleven different classes & fifteen different races varying from typical well-known fantasy classes, such as warriors, hunters & mages, & more abstract classes such as the Death Knight class, the races include both typical fantasy races such as humans, orcs, dwarves & elves, but also known but rarely playable races such as undead & werewolves; & even a few original races such as the alien-esque Draenei. In regards to factions players are allowed to either join the alliance, a collection of ‘civilized’ races joined together in friendship & trust for the sake of prosperity & expansion; or the Horde, a group mostlycomposed of ‘savage’ races joined together in an uneasy partnership borne from a struggle for survival.
Once the player has crafted their character & begun playing, they can pursue quests as they like, they can brave dungeons & raids alongside groups of other players & their own avatars, or they can war against other players in arenas or even in open combat against them within the main world map itself. Players can choose to completely ignore any quest lines which they don’t like, or can choose to entirely forgo the multiplayer aspect of the game, never doing any dungeon, raid, or PvP activity. However they make their way through the world within their avatar is entirely up to them.
To further customize & personalize their avatar; players can acquire special & sometimes unique gear & equipment to equip their character with, & they can acquire titles to add to their characters names. Titles in particular are particularly popular, as they show at a glance some of a players achievements & glories, as the titles are often earned for defeating certain powerful bosses or other players.
Within the game players who seek even more of an in-depth experience may join a Role-Playing (RP) server where another level is added to the game in terms of how players interact through their avatars. Within the RP realm, players act as if they were their avatar, speaking as their character would speak, & acting as their character would act within a situation. Some players have been known to take this level of involvement a bit too far & have characters married in-game (one example) which would seem to push the limits of how involved people should get with a fictional character & setting; but regardless, it is done.
People who were asked on the Blizzard community servers what their reasons were for playing not only the game, but their particular server type, faction, race, gender & class, mostly came up with different responses (again, showing the value of such a large degree of avatar personalization). Players who favoured the PvP servers (where combat between players is much more frequent) said they chose the server because they preferred competitive gameplay rather than co-operative , & would rather create characters to battle & dominate other peoples avatars. People who focused on the RP servers on the other hand tended to state that they liked the idea of creating a character concept & making a history & backstory for their character, giving them their own identity before travelling the world & interacting with others; both in a friendly or a hostile manner, as if they were that character.
In regards to races, classes & factions, many people, in the usual stunning display of the average human beings level of capacity for deep-thought stated that they chose their race because ‘they’re the coolest one’ or their faction ‘kicked ass’. These statements usually ended up leading to some kind of argument between community members regarding whose race, class, &/or faction was the best & why. It should be noted that these arguments were never what one might consider ‘insightful’ or ‘educational’.
Some players though did manage to give interesting answers in regards to their choices though. One person responded that they preferred the Hordes as they felt like the ‘Outcasts who refused to conform to the tyranny of the Alliance’. On the other hand, many people said that they preferred the Alliance as they were the most civilized & organized faction, with bonds born of friendship & trust, rather than being ‘a collection of monsters & savages like half the Horde’. These two comments in particular were quite interesting as it shows how each side often views the other.
Another game which allows characters to create a unique & personalized avatar, & to affect the world around the player is Biowares Dragon Age: Origins; where the character creates a character based from a variety of different races, classes & social groups, & then plays through a unique backstory depending on the character they created before being placed into the main game storyline.
Players can create for example, a Dwarven noble, who must face a backstory of political intrigue, a struggle for the throne, & a familial betrayal before embarking upon the main storyline, whereas an Elven character borne in the city has to endure a life of poverty within the slums of a city, an attack upon themselves & their loved ones at their own wedding, & an ensuing battle for revenge, followed by an escape from a corrupted judicial system.
Once the player has completed their backstory & enters the primary storyline, there are certain encounters & events which must be completed in order advance, & certain goals which must be achieved. How the players avatar goes about these actions though is up to them. They may choose to intimidate, threaten & fight their way past obstacles, to take advantage of the weak & innocent, & act as a tyrant, treating their allies with disdain & callousness (& even killing or abandoning many of them). On the other hand they may become a true paragon of virtue, helping everyone they can, seeking diplomatic or positive solutions, & protecting everyone they can; & work towards earning the trust & friendship of their companions. The player can also of course choose to pursue a mixed path, reacting differently to different situations & people.
Upon completing the game, players are shown scenes & information informing them of the consequences of their many actions. Did the king they placed upon the Dwarven throne rule justly or was he a petty tyrant? Did granting the Dalish (forest elves) their own land lead to conflict with the neighbouring humans, or did it bring peace & stability? Players are shown that every one of their actions has for better or for worse helped to shape the world they have travelled in, all depending on the decisions their avatar made throughout the course of their adventure.