Pirhana Bar‘s “Avatar Days” reminds me a lot of Robbie Cooper‘s “Alter Ego” project and the subsequent book. Robbie Cooper also created “Immersion” which looks at how we look while playing a game rather than how we choose to look within one. He has a blog.
I don’t play MMOs; the majority of my gaming time is consumed by single player titles. Though many such games involve you taking the role of a character, and sometimes you can even design them, without the social aspect it never really feels like the character you control is an avatar, a direct representation of you. Single player character-driven games, especially the more narrative focused ones, are nothing more than puppeteering. You can do what you want with the strings you’re given, but nothing more.
Avatars are about ownership and one does not own John Marston in Red Dead Redemption. You control him in between story segments, but he is exclusively his own person within the narrative. The set-ups, the order of events, the motivations of the characters exist strictly within Rockstar Games’ realm, but the how is what’s up to the player. If between moments of severe tension in the Mexican Revolution you decide to go back to the United States to go look for some treasure and pick some flowers, that experience remains yours. If you capture a bounty alive and during the trip back to the local jail you get randomly attacked by a cougar because you decided to take a short cut through a field and you curse at it for killing your horse and your bounty, you have a unique tale to tell.
John Marston’s story, however, belongs to Rockstar. Everyone that plays it, save those that quit part way through, will have the same narrative and the same outcome. Top down story-telling tends to separate a game’s character from the player. You control Marston at times, but you are not him. It’s a small but important difference because when it comes to solitary game experiences, an avatar, as a representation of the user, is solely the result of a player’s actions. You could switch out John Marston for any other character and it wouldn’t make a difference. It’s what you did to get there that counts.