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  • Avatar Alteration in Games: A Framework

    - Victoria Earl
  •  [GameCareerGuide contributor Victoria Earl takes a moment to explore the intricacies of changing an in-game avatar, detailing the various forms of character customization and their implications on game design.]


    The use of avatar alteration can have a profound effect on players depending on its use in a game. Because of the various types of and variations on avatar alteration, a framework is necessary for the adequate exploration of alteration and its effect on players. Types of avatar alteration may be mapped onto Galloway's model of diegetic, non-diegetic, operator and machine game actions. Each of these four alteration types also have subtypes, all of which are used in various modern and classic games in a variety of ways to direct the player in a specific fashion.


    In videogames, the alteration of the player avatar is an important way for the game designer to direct the player. The player avatar is an in-game representation of the player, which may be an animated humanoid that moves when the player presses a key, a cursor that follows the player's mouse or even an invisible camera that moves on player command. Avatar alteration is simply any change that affects the avatar during play. The designer can use avatar alteration to control the player's access to game content, especially the narrative of the game, encourage or discourage certain actions, give or take away player control and manipulate the player's experience of the game in innumerable ways.

    Avatar alteration in videogames affects player enjoyment and the perceived value of a game, and thus the overall success or failure of games in the commercial market. The use of avatar alteration may also affect a game's underlying themes, messages or symbolism. By defining and exploring different types of avatar alteration, game designers, critics, researchers and players may be able to better understand its use in videogames. This paper aims to construct a basic framework for exploring the different types of avatar alteration.

    Previous Literature

    The notion of an in-game avatar is nothing new. The general concept of avatars is well-established and their social implications are explored through studies of massively multiplayer online games like EverQuest (Sony Online Entertainment, 1999), World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004) and Second Life (Linden Research, 2003), where the avatar is an immediately identifiable, movable humanoid (Jensen, 2008; Bessiére, Seay and Kiesler, 2007; Boellstorff, 2008; Hemp, 2006; Meadows, 2007). Castronova also explores the economic implications of these types of avatars, the players that control them and the virtual worlds they inhabit (2003).

    Although the social and economic aspects of avatars in online multiplayer games have been well-explored, avatar alteration is almost entirely ignored. Castronova explores avatar alteration, but only as a way for developers to attempt to keep players in their particular game, calling it "avatar capital." Consalvo and Dutton also touch on avatar alteration in their qualitative method for studying games by mentioning avatar alteration as a component of games. Aspects of alteration may be referred to in studies of games, but alteration itself has not been explored thoroughly. This limited examination of avatar alteration is insufficient considering its prevalence in and impact on both single- and multiplayer games.

    There are several types of avatar alteration which must be defined and examined. This paper will use Galloway's four-way model of diegetic, non-diegetic, machine and operator acts as a base to define and separate these types. By using Galloway's model, there will be no need to construct or define basic terms and distinctions from the ground up. Examples of each type will be given and shown through commercial videogames of the past and present. The technological possibilities of and limitations to implementing each type will also be discussed. Finally, the possible impacts of each type in single- and multiplayer games will be hypothesized. Hopefully, avatar alteration can be explored in depth in the future using the basic framework and definitions provided in this paper.

    Type 1: Configuration

    Avatar configuration is non-diegetic alteration that the operator controls. The player completes configuration outside the game world before and during play. Depending on the game and the options it provides, players may configure avatars' abilities, such as the ability to climb or cast magic; appearance, including sex, height and hairstyle; or even personality traits, such as how charming or intimidating they are.

    Subtype 1.1: Avatar Creation

    Avatar configuration that occurs before play is avatar creation. Avatar creation allows the player to configure an avatar before the avatar is used in play. This is typically done to avoid narrative problems associated with drastic changes to physical appearance, abilities, or other character traits. Avatar creation is therefore most useful for character avatars that are literally part of a game world.

    Videogames with complex narratives or character avatars often feature an equally complex avatar creation system. Second Life only allows the player to configure the avatar's appearance. Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999) only allows configuration of avatar skills. Fallout 3 (Bethesda Game Studios, 2008), and Mass Effect (BioWare, 2007) allow the player to configure both appearance and skills.

    Not all avatar creation allows indepth configuration. Games might allow the player to choose between four pre-built characters that differ only in appearance and diegetic personality, such as in Left 4 Dead (Turtle Rock Studios, 2008). Pre-built character selections may also affect avatar abilities, such as the characters in Borderlands (Gearbox Software, 2009) and Resident Evil 5 (Capcom, 2009). A selection of character class, race, or both is a common way to give the player a pre-defined selection of skills and abilities, as seen in Quest for Glory (Sierra Entertainment, 1989), Mass Effect, and World of Warcraft. Several games only allow the player to choose the avatars' names, such as in Breath of Fire (Capcom, 1993) and Chrono Trigger (Square, 1995).

    Figure 1: Avatar creation in Mass Effect allows detailed configuration.

    Subtype 1.2: Avatar Customization

    Avatar customization is avatar configuration that occurs after play begins. Customization allows the player to make better-informed decisions or adapt to changing situations by changing options selected in avatar creation or options introduced after play starts.

    The possibilities of avatar customization are similar to avatar creation, and in fact many games that feature avatar creation also feature avatar customization. Some limitations may be placed on when and where customization of the avatar is available to the player.

    Figure 2: Mass Effect awards points for gaining a level, which allows customization of avatar abilities.

    The Effects and Limits of Configuration

    The scope of avatar configuration changes considerably depending on the technical implementation of the game. For example, a game that uses two-dimensional art to represent avatars would need a separate set of drawings and animations for each appearance option. This makes minute customization of avatars' appearance in such games unlikely, because the time required to make this possible is so great. Conversely, a game that uses three-dimensional models and skins to represent avatars may allow greater customization of appearance using skeleton editing tools. Similarly, a game that scales avatar abilities mathematically may easily allow customization of skills by simply allowing the player to add points to skills. Thus, the form of the game itself must be considered when designing avatar configuration systems.

    The scope of configuration available to the player may also vary depending on the designer's desire to create a cohesive game narrative. Complete or in-depth player control over the look and abilities of the avatar reduces designers' ability to create and use characters in their narrative. For this reason, many games which could technically include in-depth configuration may opt instead for pre-defined characters to give designers more control over game narrative.

    By allowing players to configure their avatars, the designer increases player identification with the avatar in both single- and multiplayer games. In massively multiplayer games, configuration is often used so players may easily identify each other and view their own avatar as unique. Configuration in single-player games allows players to identify with the avatar, making narrative choices and actions more meaningful. When different configurations affect avatar abilities and options, it allows players to view their experience of the game as unique to their specific avatar configuration. In this way, even if the appearance of the avatar cannot be changed, the wide range of skills the player can configure allows the player to solve game problems in different ways, making the game a different experience every playthrough even with a linear narrative.

    Since configuration so important to a unique and meaningful play experience, it's used most in games that depend on a strong player-avatar connection and games that offer a single narrative with variations on the playthrough experience. However, it is useful in any game with distinct, identifiable avatars or where designers need to introduce variety to the play experience.


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