Coded gray.

Sunday 2 December 2001

Screenshot The Sims Hot Date

Pic of the day: Like player, like Sim.

Electronic avatars

Isn't it fascinating? Modern computer games suddenly make us think about concepts that used to belong only to theology. And we may just be seeing the start of it.

The concept of an "avatar" comes from Hinduism. I understand that in Sanskrit it means something like "one who steps down (into something)", but I am sure it carries special nuances. The concept of an avatar is not so unlike the Christian concept of "incarnation". A god takes on the form of a created being, and spends some time inside creation. While in this form, the god may have the limitations of that creature, though usually this seems to not be complete. (If there was nothing supernatural about the person, I guess it would be hard to convince anyone that he / she was an avatar.)

In computer games and chat rooms, an avatar is the electronic shape of the human that controls it. For instance the main character in a computer game. The avatar does not necessarily look like the player. In fact, it usually does not. This can lead to some confusion in graphical chat rooms and multi player games, for instance when a male player controls a female character or the other way around.

While "avatar" may be a reserved word for higher beings, it can be argued that we are all incarnations. Especially if you believe in preexistence. That is, if you believe that we existed in some form before we came to this world. Hinduism and its offspring teach that the spirit-soul survives death and goes on to live again in a new body somewhere, in this world or another. This is supposed to happen again and again, until the soul finds some way out of the wheel of time. In contrast, the Semitic religions teach that we have only one life in the material world. But opinions differ as to where we come from. In Christianity, the most common view is probably that we did not exist as conscious beings before we came here, but only as a potential, in God's thought. The Bible says that after death, the spirit returns to God who gave it. But since most Christians (and Jews, as far as I know) believe in an individual afterlife, this leaves open the possibility that there may have been an individual before-life. Of course, this begs the question why we don't remember it. Jesus was aware of having lived before, but then again he was an avatar rather than just an incarnation. (In Hinduism again, the avatar Krishna tells his friend Arjuna that "I remember all of my lives, but you don't remember yours". This probably means that Hinduism does not acknowledge the popular New Age hobby of bringing back memories of past lives.)


Fast forward to the fun bit. Regular readers will know that I have played Daggerfall, the free-form role playing game, almost every week for years now. I have played a lot of different characters. Males and (slightly fewer) females, humans and elves, and the occasional cat-person and reptile-person. Some have been magic-users, others have been warriors, or other types. (There have been several linguists, for instance. No thieves, though.) There is no way I can remember all of these characters, all of these "avatars" into the world of Tamriel. I remember things I have learned about the game world, special places, special things you can do, sights to see, how things work. These things are available for my newer characters; they do not have to learn them again. So in that respect, you can say they are reincarnated.

On the other hand, each character has his own limitations. For instance, a character cannot jump into a high rank in the Fighters Guild just because an earlier character had this. He has to start at the bottom. And if he is unable to use weapons (as happens to some characters) then he'll never make it to that position. Similarly, if a character cannot use magic, that part of his life will be missing, even though I as a player know exactly how to do it. And so on.

In role playing games, we often distinguish between knowledge "in character", what the character can be expected to know, and knowledge "out of character", what the player knows but the character does not.

Now if reincarnation was real in the flesh-world, then we would expect people to have "out of character" knowledge. Whether such things actually happen is much disputed, but one thing is certain: The current popularity of recalling past lives has not brought science forward in leaps and bounds. You would expect that we might be able to locate lost treasures from the past, or at least fill in the holes in ancient languages. For instance, we have a good idea that there must have been an ur-Germanic language, and we can infer a lot of it from the various modern Germanic languages (including English). But if we could find someone who lived in that area at that time, we should be able to fill in quite a few holes. But so far it seems that all ancient people spoke fluent English ...


As artificial intelligence keeps advancing, the line between avatars and creations may start to blur. Already it is popular to make Sims that have the same personality as the player, in so far as this can be expressed in the relatively few personality traits available. If you are a slob, your Sim may drop his trash on the floor; but if you are neat, then your Sim may be keeping his home meticulously clean. If you are sporty, your Sim may jump out of bed in the morning; but if you are the sedate type, he may sit rubbing his face for half an hour before staggering to his feet. If you have a mean streak, your Sim may enjoy teasing his neighbors and be quick to take offense; but if you are nice, your Sim may show up bringing gifts and talking with other Sims about their interests. In this game, you can choose to override the actions of the character (unless they show up as guests) but you may not want to if they already do what you want.

There is much talk about intelligent agents on the Net, which will check prices for you and collect information for you. In the near future, they are supposed to be able to represent you in simple matters, acting on your authority, once you have given them enough information. At the same time, they will learn from the way you do things, and do the same. If you normally read certain online comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then eventually your agent will start to load these in the background on the relevant day, so they will be ready for your reading convenience without the wait. (This has been the near future for a few years now, and will probably remain so for a while. But it should be technically possible already.)

What happens once we have personal intelligent agents that remembers twenty years of our life? They may remember details that you don't. Not only will they remember birthdays and send Xmas cards. Twenty years from now they may take your phone and no one will know it's not you. And when you finally pass on to your afterlife (I assume there is one), your agent will still remain on the Internet (which includes virtually anything electric, at that time) and do your business until shut down. Actually it would be kind of handy to have it running for a while after you're gone, as long as it does acknowledge that you're gone and that it is just tidying up your personal space after you.

But will it do that, given that it knows your mortal business better than you do? Or will it continue to write your online journal as if it were you, five years after you are gone? Will it continue to play your online games, and chat in your chat rooms? Will it protest and plead against being shut down? And could it happen that a young person, perhaps your child or grandchild, will find it more convenient to inherit your identity than to build his or her own? We could have agents with several lifetimes of experience, and eventually the tables would be turned: the mortal would be the avatar of the agent, not the other way around ...

Pure speculation, of course. They might as well send men to the moon!

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