The Avatar Experience

I'm struggling to keep up with things. I watched Avatar about three weeks ago and I would settle for no less than the much-feted 3-D version. Since then, I've been meaning to write about it. I found the film riddled with cliches to the extreme. War on terror, battle for resources, environmental issues and colonisation - all the boxes were ticked. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it - specially the fun way in which Hollywood constructs everything that's not Western as quaintly primitive (blue skin, long ears and the capacity to link with ancestors through your ears) but bizarrely pristine and mystical. However, that's not what I'm going to talk about.

It's the title that intrigues me.
Avatar: not many know that it's a Sankrit word meaning reincarnation, especially the famous ten incarnations of Vishnu. In recent cyber terms, 'avatar' has taken on a slightly different meaning - thanks to Neal Stephenson's novels. It is an 'incarnation' literally but excluding the sense of temporal recurrence that accompanies the Hindu use of the word. The movie uses 'avatar' just so - as the cyber embodiment of a character. As a game researcher (and long time gamer), I am quite familiar with this meaning as well. In my DiGRA paper I've argued that the understanding of avatar in game terms remains incomplete if we do not consider its temporal aspect as well. I won't shout about that now ...

What I do want to talk about is the film's use of the concept from the gaming scenario. On the
CNet News site, David Terdiman quotes virtual worlds expert Bruce Damer as saying, "If you combine the Wii or (Microsoft's Project Natal) with augmented reality glasses or...just (hold) up your smart phone, you will 'see' into the virtual world that is cast all around you," Quite possibly.
If Natal delivers what it promises that will be amazing, there is no doubt about that. Whatever be the level of engagement with the 'virtual' world, the awareness of the player is not totally immersed in the experience of the videogame. Instead, there is what Gonzalo Frasca calls 'outmersion' (the awareness that you are not immersed or completely in the game world) and meta-outmersion (the awareness that are aware of being outmersed).

The film, Avatar, does not, contrary to many, simplify the process of identification of the avatar-body and the human operator. In a way, there is a similarity as well as a difference between this film and the slightly earlier release, The Surrogates. The humans in the latter seem more absorbed in their surrogate existence. The whole world lives and plays out in their surrogate existence or using their avatars, barring a small enclave which refuses to use surrogates. Jake, the protagonist in Avatar, however, is always aware of his other existence because the avatar he uses / inhabits is also aware that he is on a fact-finding mission. Further, in his avatar he is actually dealing with real creatures. In Surrogates, the protagonist (Bruce Willis) gets to encounter real humans as well, although other characters don't experience this as much. In Surrogates, people use their avatars to do things in their real day-to-day world whereas in Avatar , the use of avatars is restricted to a unexplored alien world. The externality of the avatar depends on this to an extent. In both cases, the real world interferes and clashes with the avatar. In the movies, real-world characters attack the avatars as well as their real world selves - sometimes simultaneously in the two different zones of real and avatar activity. An example of this in Avatar is when the US Marines move in to destroy Pandora and have to fight one of their own, Jake, in his avatar-self. Almost at the end of the movie, the chief antagonist tries to kill Jake's real and virtual selves simultaneously thus demarcating the differences while showing how they function together. There are scenes in both movies where it does seem that the involvement of the real and the avatar self are seamless but both the movies, albeit to a different degree, question the seamlessness that they point towards in their own way. The involvement with the avatar is not one of straightforward immersion and 'flow'; rather, it incorporates an experience of outmersion and meta-outmersion. The endings of the movies, of course, move towards extremes: Surrogates ends with the rejection of avatars and Avatar ends with the total passage of Jake into his avatar self. Taken together, both movies complicate our understanding of the 'avatar' as understood in current videogame parlance: the fact that two movies linked with a somewhat similar entity end in such diametrically opposite endings makes it difficult to deem any of the endings as a plausible way of understanding the avatar-experience. Instead, this reiterates the point that the experience of involvement in a virtual world through a mediated self is complex and varied. Immersion in the sense of submergence in a virtual reality does not explain this situation and it is great that a much contested idea in videogames (however involving and realistic) is being discussed by older media such as cinema with due attention being paid to its complexity.

In sum, I'm quite happy that both the films throw open more questions about the mediality of the avatar. As for the temporal aspect, I believe that although it is intrinsic to the understanding of the avatar, we will see it emerging in discussions and representations by the media in due course.


  1. Hey Souvik, slightly tangential but Mortal Online takes the concept of the avatar slightly closer to the original meaning of the word by making each character on your account part of the same "shared soul", which levels up as individual characters do. I don't know too many details, but it's in open beta now so you can find out for yourself :)

  2. Hi manveruppd, This is good stuff indeed. The concept of a shared soul complicates things further. Not sure how close this is to the original Hindu/Buddhist Avatar concept but I'll need to check. Sounds more like the Noosphere that Teilhard de Chardin and later Pierre Levy talk about.

    I suppose, however, the concept of a single entity in different manifestations (as in the original meaning of avatar) comes through somewhat.

    Another post required. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. The title too seems to point in the direction of what you are saying.