Further Examination of Avatar Ego Investment

by Hap Aziz

There is a desire in many of us to mold characters as we see fit: in literature it is what authors do with characters, in games it is what developers do with the player characters, and so on. Bailenson and Beall (2006) observe that the activity of extending their own identities was a common practice well before the development of the computer—in fact, this extension activity has always been a fundamental way in which people express themselves. People have been using both abstract and tangible ways to extend their identities. However, prior to the computer age, identity extension was a time-consuming and expensive activity, while it yielded very minor change results. It’s with the introduction of the computer into our playgrounds of personality that we see what significant identity extension techniques and technologies people can develop.

I asked the question in a recent entry, “how deep does ego-investing go?” with the eye toward understanding the types of boundaries there are in the human-avatar experience*. Bailenson and Beall discuss a phenomenon they term Transformed Social Interaction (TSI) which they define as being a mechanism to improve or decrease the quality of interpersonal reaction based on several characteristics. These communication characteristics appear to me to be strongly related to human components of ego, and thereby TSI becomes a proxy for understanding contributing factors to ego investment. These are the components making up TSI:

  • Sensory abilities – here we can augment the normal human senses in an avatar, or we can actually create new sensory abilities based on information gathering from within our virtual environment (for example, we could give an avatar a “weather sense”)
  • Situational context – this is where we can change the scale or point of view within a virtual environment, even to the point of viewing a scene from the perspective of someone else’s avatar
  • Self-representation – here we decouple the appearance of the avatar as well as the behavior of the avatar from the human connected to the avatar in order to make changes

I like the TSI mechanism because it gives me a frame of reference to break down the elements that contribute to ego investment; in my (admittedly limited) observations, people tend to build their avatars in these three areas (although the situational context category is an ongoing process rather than a “stop and change” action).

Of the three areas, I believe that ego investment resides most in self-representation: both the appearance and behavioral aspects. Bailenson and Beall go into greater detail about the decoupling of appearance and behavior, and I think that is worth a deeper look. I want to get my head wrapped around why the decoupling is important (I have the intellectual aesthetic sense that it is, but it is important to be able to articulate why). Also, there are likely ramifications to the lack of decoupling which I’m trying to grasp as well. I will follow on the topic of decoupling appearance and behavior up in an upcoming blog post.

*On a side note, I wonder what the relationship is between the human-avatar experience and the human-computer experience. The obvious premise is that those comfortable with computers are more likely to experience strong avatar reactions.


Bailenson, J.N., Beall, A. C. (2006). Transformed social interaction: Exploring the digital plasticity of avatars. Avatars at Work and Play, v. 34: 1-16.



Filed under avatars, ego-investment, games, simulation, virtual worlds

4 responses to “Further Examination of Avatar Ego Investment

  1. Pingback: Decoupling Avatar Appearance and Behavior | Learning Through Play & Technology

  2. I have been involved in Virtual Reality for 12 years, as far back as when it was VRML and there was no SL, or IWZ, or visual avatars. Tremendous changes have come about, particularly with the advent of the full torso avatar. As I came to know people behind the avatars It seemed to me that the inner person behind the avatar, the person an individual would not, or could not show in real life manifested itself through the cyber being. By no means am I a psychologist, but it seemed to me that people because of anonymity. After a few years of study, I have started sculpting real life faces to be applied to avatars. I am very interested in seeing what people will do with the opportunity to look exactly like themselves in Virtual Reality and how they will conduct themselves.

    • Do you think people will want to look exactly like themselves, or would they rather look like improved versions of themselves–more in shape, better attributes, better hair, etc.? It seems to me as though you could open up shop as an “Avatar Plastic Surgeon.”


  3. LOLOL. You are absolutely right! I have a recent post (Avatar Facelifts) that addresses that. Also, there is a picture of Pam (Virtual Worlds, Role Playing and You) on my blog. In RL she is a little plump, so she wanted to loose some weight. After sculpting her face, we did away with the chubby cheeks. She loves her avatar and an interesting point you may like is that she does not role play. I have known her for a year and I assure you that her avatar has her personality.

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