Sophia and Philosophia

Article Title

Avatars of Oneself


Zoe is an American woman who has found that “drawing the line and standing firm has always made me feel like a bitch, and, actually, I feel that people saw me as one too.”[3] For two years, however, she played an online role-playing game using a male character where “as a man I was liberated from all that.” She made mistakes in her unfamiliar role, but learned from them. “I got better at being firm but not rigid,” she says; “I practiced, safe from criticism.” Case is an American man, who plays a similar game but always appears as a woman. He travels within its virtual world, interacts with others through their characters, and contemplates why all his own are women. “My female characters are interesting,” he says, “because I can say or do the sorts of things that I mentally want to do, but if I did them as a man, they would be obnoxious.”[4] In Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, Sherry Turkle records these and other fascinating accounts of people who achieved liberation through online games. Both Zoe and Case, despite differing in gender, used them for the same purpose. “Playing this woman,” says Case, “lets me see what I have in my psychological repertoire.”[5] Gender-swapping allowed each to be more assertive, something they found difficult to do otherwise. “A virtual gender swap,” writes Turkle, “gave people greater emotional range in the real.”[6]

To achieve this liberation, as in Hinduism, they used avatars: appearances of themselves in a world less real than the one they fully inhabit. “Avatar” derives from a Sanskrit word (avatara) meaning descent, but because of stories like those of the Gita the word is also taken to mean incarnation, embodiment, the taking on of flesh. The god’s avatar permits him to manifest himself for a time in this world; he is more fully elsewhere. The same is true of those who play online games. An avatar may be killing dragons atop a steed in cyberspace, but in “meatspace” the real person who plays it is sitting before a keyboard in Pittsburgh. To capture this similarity, gaming pioneers deliberately adopted the Sanskrit word and Hindu notion, decades before our technology made the comparison irresistible. In both cases, after all, an avatar is an appearance in one world of someone more real from another. The similarity is not idle. It may help us understand who we really are and what we should do with ourselves.


Video games; Hindu philosophy; Hinduism; Video games--Social aspects; Avatars (Religion); Avatars (Virtual reality)