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  • Avatar Alteration in Games: A Framework

    - Victoria Earl

  • Type 2: Manipulation

    Avatar manipulation is non-diegetic alteration originating from the machine. Manipulation is executed by game code with no player choice in its actual execution, although it may be triggered by player action. Manipulation is itself outside the gameworld, but it may originate from diegetic events, such as avatar death in the game.

    Subtype 2.1: Stored Avatar Manipulation

    Stored avatar manipulation is acted on an avatar's stored form, such as a save file, outside of gameplay. The effects of stored avatar manipulation are usually visible when the avatar's stored form is retrieved. Avatar storage is extremely common in modern games, as it is normally integrated with storing the game state. Storing just the avatar state is relatively rare, but can be seen in games where the avatar never permanently affects the game world, such as Hexic (Carbonated Games, 2003). More commonly, the avatar's state is stored alongside the game world's state.

    Stored manipulation is often accidental, such as when save files are corrupted or lost by the machine. Corruption and loss of save files can have any number of causes, including damage to the storage medium or error in the software. This form of storage manipulation can affect any game, and often renders the avatar permanently useless. Some games, such as Fallout: New Vegas (Obsidian Entertainment, 2010), became infamous for this form of corruption and its effect on the players' experience, forcing the developer to release several free patches in an effort to fix the software problems behind the corruption (Bethesda Blog, 2010).

    Besides unintentional storage manipulation, avatar save files may be purposefully altered by a game outside of gameplay. This is most commonly done to allow the avatar state to be loaded by a game besides the one that created it. For example, in Mass Effect 2 (BioWare, 2010), players have the option of importing their save files from the previous game, Mass Effect, in order to carry much of the avatar's current state into the new game. The game uses storage manipulation to convert the stored avatar into a file it can use. Although this kind of conversion is less common, it is by no means new. Players could save and import avatar states as far back as Sierra's Quest for Glory franchise, which worked much the same way as the storage manipulation in Mass Effect 2. As games continue to increase in complexity and continuity becomes more important to players, both unintentional and purposeful storage manipulation is sure to increase.

    Subtype 2.2: Concurrent Avatar Manipulation

    Concurrent avatar manipulation is manipulation that occurs during gameplay. In concurrent manipulation, the avatar is changed while the player has control over it, but the changes themselves are beyond the player's control. This is almost universal in games: players often influence the avatar's state, but they rarely have complete control over it.

    Most concurrent manipulation affects some score attached to the avatar, whether hidden from or shown to the player. For example, in Super Mario World (Nintendo, 1990) and Donkey Kong Country (Rare, 1994), players collect diegetic tokens to increase the avatar's score for that token. Once this score reaches 100, the game software automatically adds an extra play, or life, to the avatar's current life score. Similarly, upon avatar death, one of these lives is taken away from the score. This manipulation of the life score is concurrent with gameplay, but the player does not directly affect it while playing the game; instead, the game changes it based on changes in the avatar's state.

    Available lives are not the only score games modify. Many manipulated scores and statistics are hidden from the player during gameplay and either never shown, or shown only during certain times. For example, in Left 4 Dead 2 (Valve Corporation, 2009), several hidden scores are kept by the game during gameplay. At the end of each level, a non-diegetic menu shows some of these scores to the player, including kill count, the number of times the player healed another player, and the number of times the avatar was incapacitated. Like with the life score, these statistics are not affected directly by the player, but merely based on what the player does during gameplay.

    Effects of Avatar Manipulation

    Avatar manipulation in games is one of the best ways to bridge the gap between player and avatar. By linking avatar actions to non-diegetic consequences, particularly with scores, the player can easily link their personal performance with the avatar and in turn care more about the avatar's performance.

    Similarly, allowing players to carry avatars between games allows them to develop a more permanent bond with the avatars they play, which in turn makes any potential narrative more powerful throughout and between videogames linked by the player avatar. It can also create a better sense of permanence, as in the Mass Effect franchise where decisions made in Mass Effect can drastically alter the game world in Mass Effect 2.

    Type 3: Adjustment

    Avatar adjustment is diegetic alteration controlled by the operator. The player may alter the avatar using in-world objects and mechanics. Since the player acts on and in the game world to change the avatar, the use of menus is restricted to only menu interfaces that literally exist in the game world; for example, a shop menu on an in-world computer terminal. In-game objects are typically used instead.

    Subtype 3.1: External Adjustment

    External adjustment originates from clear, visible objects placed inside the game world. The player interacts with these objects in some manner to adjust the avatar, either temporarily or permanently. The two main types of external adjustments are power-ups and items.

    Power-ups are in-game objects that increase an avatar's abilities after being absorbed by the avatar. Once acquired, the power-up alters the avatar, either temporarily or permanently, and may not be removed or dropped. Permanent power-ups may be configurable using customization.

    One of the first prominent power-ups is found in Pac-Man (Namco, 1980) as large dots that temporarily allow the avatar to defeat monsters. Power-ups are still found in games today, often as permanent power-ups such as heart containers, tools and keys in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (Nintendo, 2006), bobbleheads in Fallout 3 and energy tanks, missile expansions and suit upgrades in Metroid Prime (Retro Studios, 2002).

    Figure 3: Once collected, bobbleheads in Fallout 3 give a permanent boost to players and can be turned on or off.

    (Source: James Melzer,, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 license, "Becky got ALL the bobbleheads")

    Items are another type of external adjustment that affect the avatar's abilities while the avatar has possession of the item. Unlike power-ups, items keep their diegetic form after being picked up by the player and may be removed from the avatar at a later point. Some items may be equipped via avatar configuration. In these cases, actually obtaining the item is avatar adjustment and configuring items in a non-diegetic menu is customization.

    Items were first found in Adventure (Atari, Inc, 1979) on the Atari VCS. In Adventure, there were several items that gave the player avatar specific abilities while the item was in the avatar's hands. These items included a sword that could defeat monsters, keys that could unlock specific doors and even a magnet that could move other items (Robinett, 2006). These items, while in the avatar's hands, lent the avatar their specific abilities. Items persist in modern games as well, although they're typically paired with avatar configuration.

    Figure 4: The avatar with the key and chalice items in Adventure.

    (Source: Tantek Çelik,, Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 license, "IMG_4293")

    3.2 Internal Adjustment

    Internal adjustment is triggered directly by player actions and is not traceable to a distinct object or set of objects in the game world. This occurs when the player performs an action or set of actions to change the avatar's state. The two common forms of internal adjustment are boosting and training.

    Boosting is an internal adjustment that the player performs on the avatar by using the avatar's abilities. This is most commonly done to improve the avatar's state in battle, such as the use of defensive spells in Breath of Fire II (Capcom, 1994).

    Boosting is often temporary and repeatable and may be controlled by limitations on the avatar's abilities. For example, in Baldur's Gate (BioWare, 1998), the avatars the player controls may have the ability to cast defensive spells on themselves. These spells wear off after a certain amount of game time has passed, and the number of times the avatar can cast the spells depends on a complex spell memorization system built into the game.

    Training allows players to increase avatar skills or gain new abilities by directing the avatar to interact with the gameworld, such as climbing a tree in Quest for Glory to improve the avatar's climbing skill. Training can also be used to add new abilities to the avatar's repertoire, such as learning new skills in a martial arts dojo in Okami (Clover Studio, 2006).

    Implementation and Effects of Adjustment

    Avatar adjustment is relatively simple to implement in a game, as its appearance in Pac-Man and Adventure indicate. A power-up is the simplest form of avatar adjustment because it can be mapped to a single variable, which activates when the avatar acquires the power-up. More complicated adjustments may require non-diegetic menus, such as inventory and equipment menus, and therefore involve configuration.

    Avatar adjustment allows players to directly control the state of their avatars through diegetic play. Because adjustment is diegetic, it may involve better immersion than non-diegetic alterations. At the same time, adjustment has a limited scope. If many items need to be used, for example, the player must have a means of changing the avatar's equipment. Even learning must often use a menu interface to allow the player to choose which ability to learn. For this reason, adjustment is often combined with configuration.


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