The word Avatar is derived from the Sanskrit word avatāra, meaning descent; in Hindu mythology an avatar is a human manifestation of a Celestial or Supreme being. The word refers to descending from the celestial realm to Earth but its usage in the gaming world is similarly different.
In the world of personal computers and digital connectivity, an 'avatar' refers to any digital representation of a single user. In the case of many users of online discussion forums and some blogs, avatars usually take the form of two dimensional digital pictures. Most online message boards allow for users to use an avatar of their choice, to represent them when they make a post. Much of the time, the avatar is limited to a 100x100 pixel still image of the user's choosing. In some cases, avatars on message boards are taken to the next level. A key example of this is Gaia Online, a thriving community in which users can alter their avatars as they see fit by buying clothes, accessories, and weapons. The environment is that of a message board, but the avatar is still an important focal point of the community. In the world of social networking, it could be argued that a user's 'picture' (as in a Facebook or MySpace picture) is also an avatar.
The most standard understanding of the term 'avatar,' however, comes from the gaming world. An avatar in the gaming world is the digital representation of a player of a video game. Just like a god was said to change his or her form to descend and interact in the mortal realm, 'controllers' are able to transcend their physical form using an avatar to explore digitally created worlds. A player interacts with these digital worlds by controlling the actions of his or her avatar.
Controllers' avatars do not necessarily represent the self or a human being in a digital world. The appearance of an avatar depends heavily on the technology that powers the world. The controller develops a bond with the avatar after investing time exploring the world and by collecting items which adds character to the avatar. In an objective driven world, such as Enter The Matrix or World Of Warcraft, these items increase the success rate of the objective. The commodification of these items adds to the complexity of interaction between the player and controller, through the maturation of the avatar.
Different games offer wide varieties of options to customize the appearance of an avatar. Some, like Second Life, allow the user a humanoid base with a wide range of customizations: from hairdo to shoes, from length of arms and legs, to nose and torso. Other games like World of Warcraft have different variations of characters from fantasy, myth and fiction. Avatars in some games are restricted to specific characters of the story, within that world. The advantage of this variety is that it allows users to interact on a higher level with the game world because they become more personally attached to their avatars.
The controllers inadvertently, or purposefully, customize their avatars with fantastic elaborations of human characteristics; these may or may not be reflective of themselves. Controllers become even more attached to the digital object because of this ability. The controllers may also design their avatars to be in virtual world experiments in relation to their real world experiences, such as social interaction.