Alternate Life As an Avatar
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2010, 2012
What is an avatar?
An avatar is a visible representation of a person. It comes from a Sanskrit word “avatara” which means “descent”. In Hinduism, deities descend from heaven to earth in visible forms, appearances called “avatars”.
The term is used commonly today in a series of Eastern animated films based upon mystical traditions, and the well known science fiction film where humans remotely inhabit genetically engineered bodies to live among the race of humanoids called the Na’vi.
The term is also more commonly used today to refer to animated images used by a person as a character in a computerized game or virtual world. In some virtual worlds you can create your own avatar, choosing how you will look and dress as you interact with other avatars. There are virtual worlds where you can construct and furnish your own home, club, beach, or whatever you prefer, and visit places made by others.
What do avatars do?
There are many virtual worlds where you can engage in combat, solve mysteries, travel into space, or live an alternate life in a world very much like the real one. In some of the social network virtual worlds you can meet other users through their avatars. You can sit in a coffee shop and chat with people who may be from anywhere in the world. There are places where you can dance, swim, cultivate farms, raise tropical fish, build homes and cities. There are even some virtual worlds where you can date, become physically intimate, get married, even have children together. There are obviously moral dangers to avoid when the possibilities are seemingly endless.
In some virtual worlds there are supernatural powers and magical articles you can acquire. As wizards, orks, elves, and other types of beings, avatars can form guilds, tribes, nations, and families to defend or fight against other groups. Dying, killing, stealing, and casting spells can be a necessary part of survival.
In this age of computers, tablets, and cell-phones anyone can become whatever he wants to be in a virtual world of his choosing as an avatar representing whatever he wants to be.
The idea of “role play” is not new. Some of the earliest artifacts of ancient civilizations are dolls and toy weapons. Children would pretend to be parents or warriors in worlds of their own imaginations.
Growing up back in the 50s, I remember acting out scenarios with friends as cowboys and superheroes. We would roam the old west with our cowboy hats and six shooters, re-fight battles of World War II, and imagine leaping tall buildings with a single bound (a line from the old Superman TV show). Some of you may not have lived in such ancient times.
Girls at that time seemed to prefer playing house with dolls, toy stoves, and little tea sets. They would often talk reluctant boys into being husbands and fathers. There were usually dress-up costumes and other things to get into the character.
This has been going on for many centuries, and continues today. Avatars in virtual worlds add new dimensions to these old role play games without much change in the basic idea of entering a pretend world as a break from the real one.
So what’s the problem?
There are several serious concerns in trying to handle this new realm of virtual living while continuing to live responsibly as those redeemed by God’s grace.
One of the problems is the management of our priorities relating to time and money. Alternate realities can compete for our time and focus. Some individuals spend hours every day in virtual worlds. They spend hundreds of dollars buying things for their avatars.
Those who provide these alternate places are businesses. They are there to earn a living. Catalogs in those worlds enable you to buy clothing and accessories for your avatars. You can purchase weapons, games, furniture, homes, pets, and just about anything you can think of wanting your avatar to own or to do. I have talked with several addicted users who have maxed out credit cards giving their avatars a better life than they could afford in the real world. There are times when bills are not payed so money can be directed to the virtual world.
I have met users of these worlds who take it very seriously. Some will spend every waking hour working on advancing their avatar on the virtual battle field, raising crops on a digital farm, or meeting regularly with friends around the world. Many of them use the anonymity of the Internet to portray themselves as something they are not, so you never really know if the person you meet there is actually the kind of individual depicted in the avatar. There are many who have been taken in by a seeming “friend” who turns out to be a con-artist, or someone deceitfully there for impure reasons.
Another problem is in the area of personal morality. In some virtual worlds things clearly offensive to God and forbidden in Scripture are part of the game. Ethical boundaries become confused and effort is made to do sinful things as the only way to advance your avatar and to survive. Peer pressure from those you get to know there can have that lemming effect to draw you in against otherwise better judgment.
In our physical world those who would never think of casting magical spells do it through their avatars as part of the game every day. Horrible slaughtering of other humans is sometimes simulated in combat games with no more purpose or consequence than accumulating points or advancing in higher levels of game play. Instead of warfare being a tragic necessity in an evil world, it is reduced to counting dead bodies for points in a game.
Some are drawn into immoral behaviors as they vicariously engage in sexual activities with their avatars. There was a couple in one of the social virtual worlds who had taken vows of marriage, lived together and had children in the virtual world, but who admitted in conversation that they actually were both married to other people “In Real Life”, but their spouses had no idea about the relationship they had as avatars.
The answer many give is, “It’s just a game,” or “It’s not real.” But what effect does this have upon our moral character if we justify doing things in avatar form which we would consider to be sinful if we did it in our own bodies?
It is vital to remember that you belong to the Lord in all of life. A virtual world is not really another world. Behind every avatar is a real person who is responsible to his Creator and Redeemer for living and thinking in ways that honor him. We are to live for God’s glory in all we do. Jesus made it clear that sin is not found only in the actions, but also in the mind that imagines and desires what is morally wrong (Matthew 5:22, 28).
When entered responsibly, virtual worlds can be places to enjoy the depths of your imagination, to meet others from all over the planet, to appreciate other cultures, and to simply enjoy a time of recreation. Avatar habitats are just another form of communication between people in the only real world that exists. Wherever we communicate, we must do it in a way that honors our God and respects his revealed ways.
We need to keep in mind the distinction between fantasy and fiction. We are obligated and driven by our redeemed nature to love the God who first loved us. We must direct every part of his creation, the virtual places too, to rejoice in and to promote the Glory of God and to honor what he says is right and good.
1 Corinthians 10:31, “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
On July 15th 2010 our webcast was titled, “An Alternate Life as an Avatar”. This updated article is based upon that webcast.
(Note: The Bible quotations in this article are from the New King James Bible unless otherwise noted.)