Post VWF Thoughts: the value of an avatar

November 6, 2007

A topic that cropped up several times at the virtual worlds forum was the idea of interoperability between virtual worlds. Anyone remotely interested in virtual worlds will have picked up on the collaboration between IBM and Linden Labs to do just that. Without explicitly stating so, it is assumed that this would allow avatars to cross between virtual worlds, although the word ‘avatar’ is sometimes replaced by the word ‘identity’ which is something entirely different. The question to my mind is: what are the actual benefits of this interoperability? Raph Koster voiced his concerns on this issue on his blog, the comments provide further insight into the issues.

Interoperability is clearly a big issue and the technical details involved go well beyond my knowledge, so I’m going to focus on a peripheral issue that I feel could benefit users and businesses – the value of an avatar. It is well-known that one of the most compelling aspects of virtual worlds is, well to be blunt, showing off. The raft of kids MMOs and microtransaction MMOs we’ve seen lately are driven by a business model that encourages players to purchase new and better items, whether functional or aesthetic, so they can impress other players (as well as complete more difficult quests, for narrative driven MMOS) and one of the reasons why an MMO like Ultima Online can persist for 10 years is because players don’t want to leave behind characters that are the result of days, months, maybe even years of play.

While social relationships (friends) are often the deciding factor on whether a user stays with an MMO or goes, this is a factor most virtual world producers have very little control over (although see this great post from Tobold). New platforms such as Metaplace have been built with the idea of expanding the presence of virtual worlds, and presumably therefore avatars, across the web, and several social networking sites for MMO players have been launched during the last couple of years with more to come. We can also count features such as Blizzard’s The Armoury for World of Warcraft players as a means of making avatars more publicly salient. The problem with these features is that the audience to which they make avatars visible is still relatively limited to those who are already players of MMOS.

Virtual world platforms like Active Worlds and Scenecaster have sensibly created Facebook apps. But while they focus more on the presence of a virtual world, a Second Life Facebook app, Second Life Link has been developed that creates a mini-profile for your avatar, including information about your home, if you have one, your favourite destinations and friends who also use Second Life. It feels rather like a networking tool rather than a publicity tool, for example it doesn’t give the option to display favourite outfits or skins, nor does it display avatar, home or favourite location images on the main page of your profile, but it does recontextualise avatars in a more public space. With the opportunities present in mobile (see Minifriday and MoiPal) I’m surprised there hasn’t been a more determined move by MMO producers to get players’ avatars onto mobile screens or even onto RL goods like t-shirts, posters and perhaps ultimately 3D versions of your avatar.


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