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Avatars: A Short History

Some know them only as James Cameron’s large alien creatures but avatars have an origin all of their own—and it may surprise you.

In pop culture, many know avatars as the giant blue beings from Pandora, or as Aang the young (112-year-old) boy frozen in ice who must master the four elements. But avatars have existed long before these stories were created. In fact, many millenniums ago. 

The word "avatar" comes from Sanskrit and translates to the embodiment of a powerful being or god in a different form. In Hindu tales, the best-known avatar is Vishnu, who takes human form to restore righteousness. 

Some people translate "avatar" as "incarnation"—this theme appears in the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender—but they're different. "Incarnation" suggests being born in flesh, but the term "avatar" suggests a mythical form. In Hinduism, avatars represent spiritual perfection and noble goals.

But since its Hindu origins, the term avatar has expanded and grown in its interpretations, taking various forms in popular culture. During the development of digital chat forums, they became a name for the icons we create online to identify ourselves. Very much like Hindu interpretations, taking a mythical form, albeit just for the earthly purpose of chats. But it did catch on.

Soon after, it popped up in games. Avatars allowed us to transform as deities were once said to have— this time in an online world. In gaming, avatars now commonly refer to the characters we put ourselves into. The British online game pioneer Richard Bartle has been researching the topic since the mid-1980s and points out the following: “Many people who write about avatars actually mean characters, but they don't understand the difference. Avatars are puppets, characters are simulacra. However, neither avatars nor characters are people. They still have something to do with the absorptive power of online worlds. There is a level of immersion that goes even deeper than the character: the role.”

Playing as avatars offers a unique form of freedom for children, allowing them to explore identities and worlds without the constraints of the physical realm. This playful immersion can foster creativity, enhance problem-solving skills, and boost confidence as they navigate through various scenarios and interact with others globally. It’s not just about entertainment; it’s about expanding horizons and understanding diversity in a safe, controlled environment, enabling kids to learn and grow in ways that were unimaginable just a generation ago. Encourage your child to embrace this digital playground with open-minded curiosity.

In the World of Us game, players’ Avatars can roam and explore, take up an identity, and a new style and if they feel like they may just don a new personality. The idea is to play, right? 

Nainy Sahani is an accomplished marketing and transformation consultant based in Berlin. With a background spanning multiple continents and sectors, she specializes in the integration of strategic content development and advanced technology solutions. Nainy has led significant initiatives to establish brand foundations and develop comprehensive marketing strategies, particularly in the digital content sectors. An accomplished speaker and advisor, she actively contributes to discussions and developments in digital marketing, sustainable practices, and gender parity in the tech industry. Nainy holds a Bachelor of Science in Electronic Media and a Diploma in Media & Communication, underpinning her passion for merging creative content with educational outreach in the digital landscape.

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