What is an Avatar? Creators Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer Trace the Ancient Roots of the Latest Buzzword

Blue aliens with cat-like faces might first come to mind when one hears the word avatar, now that James Camerons latest sci-fi flick has become the top grossing movie of all time.

But the box-office hit film is just the latest medium to popularize the word avatar, an ancient religious term thats taken on a new meaning in modern times.

Aside from the movie, many people are likely familiar with the word avatar as an expression of the self (or the alter ego) in a virtual world. Participation in video games, internet forums and Heritage Keys own King Tut Virtual Experience can all involve using a 2-D or 3-D representation of your self.

Hindu Roots of the Avatar

VishnuBut while the modern day meaning of avatar implies gaming and interaction, the original definition has a very different meaning. In Hinduism, avatars act as manifestations of deities. This occurs when a god has decided to come to our world by taking a human or animal form.

The most well-known avatars were associated with the god Vishnu, who often appeared in our world to restore good in the world when evil threatened to corrupt it. The deity would do so by fighting off demons as a fish or a boar. At other times, Vishnu would lead armies to victory as an eventual king (Sounds a little similar to the plot of the movie Avatar?).

Originally, the term avatar derived from the Sanskrit word Avatra, which means descent. But it was not until 1784 that the word avatar first appeared in the English language. Two centuries later, the term would gain a whole new meaning with the advent of video gaming.

The 1986 online role-playing game known as Habitat was the first instance where the word avatar was used in the modern sense. Players assumed their own persona and interacted together in a virtual community.

Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer: The Men Who Invented the Avatar

Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer

Chip Morningstar is one of the creators of the game who coined the term. In an e-mail interview with Heritage Key, Morningstar explains that his background as a bookish kid led to him coming across the word.

It seemed an appropriate mapping, he added. In the sense that we humans are like deities, or at least external souls, with respect to a virtual world that exists only inside a computer simulation.

But the word’s new meaning didn’t exactly catch on at first. Randy Farmer, the other creator of Habitat, said, “Initially, even marketing people in the early 1990’s in our own company, Communities.com, bristled at this new and foreign sounding word.”

Over time, however, science-fiction novels and the growth of online gaming and the internet would cement the new meaning of ‘avatar’. Farmer added, “I knew the term was permanently in the language when Felicia Day recorded Do You Want To Date My Avatar?

With the popularization of the term, now its not just Hindu gods who can descend upon different worlds, but people. Today, avatars come in the form of characters ready to fight in some virtual battlefield to the simple picture used to identify oneself on an internet forum. In Heritage Keys case, a user can don their explorers hat and visit a virtual version of King Tuts tomb.

Constant Evolution of the Word

 KTV Avi

But modern day avatars have also gone beyond simply allowing us to visit new worlds. With online virtual worlds such as King Tut Virtual and Second Life, users can customize their avatar in almost any way they wish. (Like Vishnu, a user can choose to be a human or an animal. But the makers of Second Life also give you the option of being a vegetable or mineral.)

As the Second Life website states: You can create an avatar that resembles your real life or create an alternate identity. The only limit is your imagination. Who do you want to be?

While our avatars exist only in the virtual world, that’s not quite so in James Cameron’s latest film. In making Avatar, the director was also well aware of the words ancient meaning, as well as its modern use. The only difference with his avatar characters is that theyre meant to be real, at least on film anyways.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Cameron said: In this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human’s intelligence into a remotely located body, a biological body. It’s not an avatar in the sense of just existing as ones and zeroes in cyberspace. It’s actually a physical body.

Perhaps the word avatar will continue to evolve as technology continues to advance and change. But Morningstar is conflicted over how the term is used today.

I’ve been variously gratified, amused, and dismayed at the way the word has taken on the life that it has, Morningstar said, adding that he sometimes feels as though he ruined the term avatar.

On the other hand, it’s great fun at games industry parties, job interviews, and similar occasions to be able to claim bragging rights, he said. And the ways the term has morphed and transmogrified in use have been endlessly fascinating.