Expressive Avatars: Vitality in Virtual Worlds

Philosophy and Technology 36 (2):1-28 (2023)
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Critics have argued that human-controlled avatar interactions fail to facilitate the kinds of expressivity and social understanding afforded by our physical bodies. We identify three claims meant to justify the supposed expressive limits of avatar interactions compared to our physical interactions. First, “The Limited Expressivity Claim”: avatars have a more limited expressive range than our physical bodies. Second, “The Inputted Expressivity Claim”: any expressive avatarial behaviour must be deliberately inputted by the user. Third, “The Decoding Claim”: users must infer or figure out the expressive meaning of human-controlled avatars’ behaviour through cognitively onerous processes. With the aim of critically assessing all three claims, we analyze data collected through observations of and interviews with expert players of the avatar-based video game League of Legends. Focusing on Daniel Stern’s (2010) notion of vitality, we analyze the participants’ descriptions of seeing and interacting with other avatars during performance. Our analysis shows that the informants experience human-based avatarial interactions as qualitatively different than interactions with bots, that the informants see the movements of other players’ avatars as having different expressive styles, and that the informants actively use and manipulate this avatarial expressivity during performance. The results of our analysis, we argue, provide reasons for loosening or resisting the three claims concerning the limits of avatarial expressivity.

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Author Profiles

David Ekdahl
University of Exeter
Lucy Osler
Cardiff University