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July 20, 2004 | Today's avatars in massively multiplayer environments like Second Life are giving their users the gift of expression and infusing games with something more, soul.

The bleachers at Stage Four in Dore are always a good place to avatar-watch, particularly during fashion-shows. Dressed as a tree-man, I am sandwiched between a blue, demon-winged lad and an attractive woman sporting a revealing red jump-suit. I take a moment to appreciate her outfit, and realize she's giving me an appraising glance. Her gaze sweeps from my bark-covered feet to leafy noggin. "Hi, Zero," she says. I grin. Her blue eyes lock onto my yellow ones and she blinks a couple of times, the corners of her mouth appearing to turn up slightly. It takes a few heartbeats before I realize I've been staring. With a flick of the mouse, I break eye-contact. I've blushed in real life.

Virtual environments historically haven't given players the ability to connect in such subtle ways. Although we know what a picture is worth, it took years before graphics supplemented typed words as a means of communication. Today's graphics and animation technologies are poised to irrevocably change the face of human interaction in cyberspace, allowing us not just to share, but to create wordless, realistic and powerful moments.

Back in the dial-up days of the early 1980s, text-based multi-user dimensions (MUDs) relied entirely on user-typed chat, descriptions, and acronyms to construct characters and scenes within computer-moderated worlds. One's quality of experience was entirely contingent on the eloquence, style, and typing abilities of fellow participants. Gestures such as waving and laughing would remain text-exclusive for years to come, but the medium was substantially improved when participants began inserting "emoticons" into their chats. Still in wide use today, these text-cobbled representations of perpendicular human facial expressions were the first purely visual method of interpersonal communication in multiplayer games.

The explosion of emotes across MUDs, chat spaces, and message boards heralded the development of graphically-enhanced multi-user environments. "Lucasfilm's Habitat," launched in 1985 on the Commodore 64, was one of the first large-scale cyberspaces to make extensive use of 2D graphics. Players were represented by animated characters, now known commonly as "avatars," which could be controlled via a joystick. Habitat's user-controlled gestures were limited but significant. In these early days of computer graphics, users saw something almost magical in even the simplest human shapes. At a panel discussion held in June, 2004 at the California History Museum entitled "Graphics- Then and Now," veteran game designer Jordan Mechner, recalled his experiences playing the single-player Commodore 64 game "Choplifter": "I was blown away by those little guys that waved…because they were human, because of the emotion…I actually felt guilty when I squashed them with my rotor blades…" 1

In the 1990s, home computers were becoming viable for early forays into more graphically-intense virtual realities. A slew of experimental 3D worlds opened up new ways of thinking about how avatars might interrelate. Microsoft was an early pioneer in facilitating human expression in cyberspace. "V-Chat," launched in 1995, was an early contender in the ballooning collection of larger-scope chat spaces that encompassed both 2D and 3D graphics. V-Chat's avatars, although primitive, were both customizable and capable of expressing a range of emotional states. Microsoft's 2D "Comic Chat" built upon the facial expressions Microsoft had tested with V-Chat. Comic Chat displayed text in speech or thought bubbles, allowing users to express not only their public, but "private" thoughts; AI-detection of user-typed acronyms would cause one of the illustrated avatars to assume an appropriate pose, such as waving if the user had typed "BRB" for "be right back." While both the 2D Comic Chat and 3D V-Chat gave users more expressive outlets, it was ultimately 3D space that would offer the greatest potential for interpersonal dynamics. After analyzing logs from V-Chat sessions, Microsoft Research found that "Overall, V-Chat users appear to be using the 3D features of the program to reproduce the social conventions of physical proxemics."2 The opening up of chat to 3D space allowed users to communicate nonverbally simply by establishing location and facing relative to other participants.

Cyberspace pioneer, lecturer and author Bruce Damer knows firsthand that position in a 3D world can speak volumes. His most memorable moment occurred in 1999 after inviting real-life Apollo IX astronaut Rusty Schweickart to visit a virtual lunar landscape in the versatile 3D environment "ActiveWorlds." While a crowd of enthralled users looked on, Schweickart helped a little girl moonwalk for herself, inadvertently passing through her avatar in the process. Damer recalls the girl's breathless reaction to this day: "'Oh my God, I have been touched by an Apollo astronaut.'

"I said 'No, Julie, his avatar just passed through yours,' and she said 'No, you're wrong-I can feel it in my body, I'm shaking, I was touched by this man, I'll never forget this.'"

Few mediums realized the creative use of "bodies" in cyberspace better than video games. At the turn of the century, 3D game characters finally possessed enough detail to display recognizable human gestures. Unreal Tournament (Epic Games, 1999) featured a wide range of insulting animated gestures, such as pelvic thrusts, enabling avatars to insult one another from afar before locking in fierce combat. "Myth: The Wolf Age," a multiplayer fantasy war game published in 2001 by Take Two Interactive, allowed player-controlled troops to visibly and audibly jeer each other into a combative lather. Innovative Mythers would even go so far as to throw the limbs of fallen soldiers against their enemies. While tactically-ineffective, these maneuvers stylishly communicated intimidation, aggression, and humour between players.

As technology improved, the rich graphical detail of multiplayer games expanded to "massively" multiplayer environments, most of which blended social activity with group-oriented action. The least violent of these offerings held communication in the highest esteem. "The Sims Online" (Electronic Arts, 2002) was based on the hit seller The Sims and built on the classic version's expressive characters by giving each user a palette of hundreds of actions with which to control their avatar. "There," launched the following year by There, Inc., gave even more power to users through simple means to add emphasis to certain emotes. Former Thereian "Cristiano Midnight" recounts his experiences: "[S]ome interactions had their intensity changed by using one to three apostrophes to invoke the gesture - 'love would produce a little heart, while ''love would produce a flurry of hearts, and '''heart a bigger heart…Overall, the gestures are nice, but after seeing custom animations, I would be annoyed with canned animations all the time." 3

"Second Life" (Linden Lab, 2003) one-upped other massively-multiuser environments from the get-go, putting an inordinate amount of attention and detail into how avatars would interact with each other and their surrounds. Second Life's avatars were conceived in 2001 with plenty of hidden potential, rolled out gradually after launch. Linden Lab avatar customization and animation expert Richard Nelson recalls working with CEO Philip Rosedale on the foundations of communication development. "We spent a lot of time…making users' intentions visible to other people, so we looked at things like where your avatar's head is pointing, how your eyes move… how you could point to an object in the world and refer to it to someone else. What we focused on was making the avatar move realistically depending on what you're doing."

"We wanted to make the experience as immersive as we could," says Robin Harper, Linden Lab's Senior VP of Marketing and Community Development. "Part of that is the ability to interact with another individual in Second Life as if that person were physically standing right in front of you."

Linden Lab carved out a bold new chapter in consumer virtual reality during the summer of 2004 by taking Second Life's palette of animation from finite to infinite. Already able to upload their own graphics, sounds, and create their own 3D objects, Second Life users are now able to define their own visual language by uploading custom animations they've designed themselves. "Yesterday, we sat on the bleachers and flapped our arms," wrote Shelle Barton, aka "Zana Feaver" on fan-blog Second Language. "We flapped as hard as we could, but the concrete wouldn't budge…Flapping arms in a group has a nice calming aspect that is hard to explain to anyone…" 4

Second Life's new canvas of creative communication was planned from day one. "From the beginning," says Richard Nelson, "we said we'd go with a standard file format, this motion capture BVH file format, we would use a cheap, commonly available tool like Poser in house to create all our animations." The character animation kit "Poser" is relatively inexpensive, easy-to-learn software, employed not only by industry professionals, but students and hobbyists. With a low barrier to entry, and a wide support base, Second Life users have jumped enthusiastically into the animation pool, playing with a growing repertoire of previously unseen movement. The results have blazed through Second Life's social scene.

"The dance clubs have taken full advantage of all different kinds of new dance moves," says Harper. "There have been lots of parties and fun being had sharing the animations they're creating."

"You're starting to see animation sections opening up in various [user-created] stores where there used to be just clothing," Nelson adds. "It's all branching out." With the advent of custom animation in Second Life, no avatar has to walk the same, sit the same, or swim the same. Performing arts are now not only possible, but completely viable, from mime to stage acting, from burlesque to ballet. Arm-flapping and other whimsical, nonverbal activities are blossoming across the virtual landscape.

We naturally express ourselves through movement, bodily attitude, and facial expressions. This primal and vital method of communication, although universal in appeal, has historically been unrealized. The early days of text-chatting were all about the literal. 2D graphics changed our way of thinking about expression, offering the potential to "show" rather than "tell." The 3D graphics found in games and virtual reality formed a primordial ooze of potential and expanded into the massively-multiplayer realm. Places such as The Sims Online and There gave us a glimpse at things to come. The introduction of user-created animation in Second Life has opened our eyes to a future cyberspace where technology empowers rather than suppresses humanity.

Tony Walsh is a Toronto-based freelance Jack of all Trades, practitioner of the Arts, avid gamer and renegade digital anthropologist. He keeps a near-daily journal at but lives at


1 - Graphics -Then and Now (06/18/04): Hosted by the California History Museum and nVidia, GameSpot's Vince Broady moderates a panel discussion titled "Graphics: Then & Now" which features Will Wright, Jordan Mechner and Rand Miller as speakers.

2 - Smith, M., Farnham, S., & Drucker S. The Social Life of Small Graphical Chat Spaces . In Proceedings of CHI 2000, The Hague, Netherlands March 2000

3 - Cristiano Midnight, SLUniverse Proprietor, SLUniverse Forums, July 9, 2004,

4 - Zana Feaver, Second Language blog, July 11, 2004.

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