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
"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
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 clickableculture.com
but lives at secretlair.com.
- 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
- Cristiano Midnight, SLUniverse Proprietor, SLUniverse
Forums, July 9, 2004,
- Zana Feaver, Second
Language blog, July 11, 2004.
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