Game elements that diegetically represent players, providing their main means of interacting with the world and whose fate is connected to the players' success and failure in the game.
Many games let players be represented in them by one of the agents in the game, often as a human or an anthropomorphic persona (but in some cases less human-like entities as vehicles, blobs, etc.). Echoing the idea from religion that some gods can incarnate into beings on Earth to be able to interact there, these forms are called Avatars. The presence of Avatars when their players are not interacting with the game system is in this case not consistent with the original meaning; games having this design are in fact closer to using the Horse concept in Voodoo.
The use of Avatars can be for several reasons: to let players take a specific role in the events that unfold during gameplay, limit their perception of the game world, localize the area where they can affect the game world, or create game elements the player must keep safe. Through doing this, the players' attention can be focused on specific parts of the game and provide an anchor for the players' emotional investment in the games.
Note: When abstract and representational forms of of diegetic persons exist, both forms are commonly referred to as Characters. That the term Avatars is not used in this case is in compliance with the original meaning of the term since it implies a clear distinction between the two, and this is not the case in those situations. However, this pattern is described to be useful regardless if an abstract representation exists as well.
- 1 Examples
- 2 Using the pattern
- 3 Consequences
- 4 Relations
- 5 History
- 6 References
- 7 Acknowledgments
Avatars can be found in most games having a game world since players needs some focal point within the world to affect it. The pattern was already present in early arcade and video games, e.g. Space Wars, the Pac-Man series, and the Bomberman series make use of this pattern, and this tradition is continued in many modern games following the aesthetics from those games (e.g. Continuity, Icy Tower, and Zombiepox). The case could even be made that it is present in Chess even if players can move other pieces, since losing one's king is equal to losing the game. Likewise, one could argue that in most traditional, sports such as Wrestling and Soccer, the players themselves are Avatars, noting that their actions are restricted and that it shouldn't matter for the games' definitions who participate as long as they match certain criteria.
Although not strictly necessary in single-player FPS games such as the Doom and Quake series since the players don't need to be able to see themselves (other than in mirrors for believability issues), Avatars are needed in the multiplayer modes of these games and FPS games specifically designed for team-based gameplay such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory and the Left 4 Dead series. Likewise, players are represented as Avatars in Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games such as World of Warcraft, but here players often have a greater possibility to personalize their appearance through physical characteristics and equipment. Games using third person perspectives, e.g. the Assassin's Creed series and the Lego Star Wars series, let players see their own Avatars in relation to the Game World, making it easier to understand scales and simulate an awareness of one's surroundings not purely based on what is in line of sight. The use of vehicles, e.g. cars in the Need for Speed Series and anti-aircraft artillery pieces World War II Online, or blobs, as in Gish or Mercury Meltdown, show that not only anthropomorphic representations can be used as Avatars.
The computer game Paradroid used an extended variant of the Avatar pattern. The player controlled a defenseless robot, which could control one other robot, and the gameplay consisted of switching between these second-order Avatars to defeat all robots on a spaceship.
The creatures in the Black & White series are not Avatars since they are only indirectly controlled by players and they affect the game world through an intangible hand.
Using the pattern
While the Avatar presents players with a tangible presence in a Game World, the Character is the abstract representation containing game information about aspects such as Attributes and Skills. However, since these in many cases affect each other it is often necessary to consider these two patterns together.
Two main requirements are needed for players to perceive themselves as having Avatars in the game. First, that a single entity in the Game World is their primary ability to affect the game, i.e. that person is their Focus Loci (since controlling several game elements give rise to the Units patterns). Second, that the game (or other players) can affect the players' success or failure regarding gameplay through the entity (the lack of this feature would make it a God's Finger). This does not mean that players only can have one specific Avatar during a complete game session, simply that one only has one at any given time. Examples of using more than one Avatar include Fahrenheit, where the player switching between several different protagonists in the game story, and Cursor*10 where players cooperate with previous instances of their Avatars. Games such as Sleepwalker and Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time blur the distinction between Avatars and Units by having several diegetic persons that they have to take care of (they can be said to instantiate a weak form of Parallel Lives but where the Avatars are controlled as one group and losing one may immediately have bad effects). A weaker form of this blurring can be found in games where players' have Companions more limited than full-fledged AI Players that accompany the Avatars, e.g. the dogs in the Fallout series, Shadow Dancer, and Fable II, and the various Companions in Torchlight. Another variation of Avatars is to use them in a layered fashion where a player's Avatar controls another game element directly. This typically presented to the player by replacing the Avatar with the other game element and providing the actions of the game element to the player. Examples of this are the possessing of other droids in Paradroid and the possibility to enter the driving position in vehicles in Battlefield 1942.
Choosing the abilities Avatars provide naturally depends on the intended gameplay and theme, but some are more likely than others. Movement is very common ability used with Avatars, both to allow explorations and re-positioning in the Game Worlds and since players are used to thinking about themselves in relation to their locomotion. Related to Movement is the consideration if the Avatars should be Diegetically Tangible Game Items - if they are they can become Obstacles to the Movement of other game elements, and in Multiplayer Games, other Avatars. Another common ability is perception, i.e. that the Avatars can detect some aspects of the Game World but not other. Note that this can be used both to limit what actions are possible (e.g. only being able to shoot enemies which are in the Avatar's Line of Sight) but also to limit the players' information about the game state, i.e. provide a form of Fog of War and make God Views impossible. That latter is typically a natural consequence of First Person Views unless the Game World has very few Obstacles. Combat is also a common ability for Avatars and makes Capture and Eliminate goals possible. Although more common for Characters, actions related to Transferable Items, e.g. Trading and Stealing, can sometimes be appropriate for Avatars. A rather rare ability for Avatars but which can be vital in Multiplayer first-person shooters is to allow some Avatars to have the Privileged Ability of being able to act as a Spawn Point. Besides what actions the avatars can perform, their likelihood to succeed can be linked either to the Character statistics, player skill, or Player/Character Skill Composites and the choices made here typically determine the proportions importance of Dexterity-Based Actions and Tactical Planning in the game.
Many games start with a Limited Set of Actions available through the Avatars and then expanding this through New Abilities as gameplay progresses. By doing this, as is done for example in the Super Mario series and The Legend of Zelda series, the game can provide a Right Level of Difficulty in the beginning and a Smooth Learning Curves as the game commences. Note that New Abilities or Improved Abilities can be given either to Avatars or Characters; the abilities are linked to Avatars when the abilities are only observable through actions in the Game World or there are no observable abstract representations of Characters behind the Avatars. These New Abilities provide ways of having Character Development even in games that do not have explicit Characters. Another option to providing New Abilities to Avatars is through diegetically facilitated them through Location-Fixed Abilities such as Controllers, Installations, Tools, or Vehicles. Game Items such as Weapons can provide both New and Improved Abilities while Armor can protected against Damage. Further, the game design can support the Narration Structures by limiting access to game areas until various Privileged Abilities, or Privileged Movement to gain entry to Inaccessible Areas, have been acquired.
Linking the success or failure of the gameplay to Avatars can be done in many ways. Race, Traverse, Deliver, Herd, and Contact goals naturally depend on the Avatars movement if their positions are used to determine if the end conditions have been reached. Exploration can likewise be used if the game uses the Avatars' modes of perception to judge what has been found. The use of Damage (and by extension Eliminate) due to Combat or Traps is a very common way to make Avatars vulnerable and players' succeed linked to them, but Ability Losses (including Privileged Abilities), or losses of Score points or Tools are other possibilities. Although these introduce negative possibilities for the players, once these vulnerabilities have been established they allow for the goals of Evade and Stealth to be linked to the Avatars. More specific goals that can be introduced in this way, especially when combined with Multiplayer Games and common Eliminate goals are King of the Hill and Last Man Standing. The death or Elimination of Avatars typically either signifies the end of the game (if Permadeath is used), Downtime before the next round begins or other types of Death Consequences, or the loss of one of the Lives available (and in the last case requires Spawning or the activation of a new Avatar). This makes the Survive goal an integral part of many games using Avatars.
Besides these two necessary conditions, the Avatars relation to its surroundings and other diegetic persons are fundamental in how they are perceived. The use of Traps, Environmental Effects, Inaccessible Areas, Obstacles, Diegetically Outstanding Features, and Safe Havens not only help define the Game Worlds but also the Avatars through how they affect them. Diegetically Tangible Game Items can serve many of these purposes while also having the functionality of various types of Game Items. That game elements in Game Worlds can help define Avatars becomes especially true if there are many types of playable Avatars or the Avatars are affected differently than Enemies and other Agents, e.g. through having different rules concerning Line of Sight. Reversely, if Avatars block Line of Sight or not when this pattern is used affects the Avatars relation to the Game World. Automated Responses, actions initiated by the Avatars themselves without player interference, are ways to inform players about possible actions (e.g. by the Avatars glancing at them or commenting them) or possible dangers (e.g. how Avatars in Assassin's Creed 2 and Prince of Persia make animations of regaining their balance after nearly falling of ledges when players have moved them to close).
Additional design possibilities exist to let players have closer attachment with their Avatars, with two common approaches being related to what ability or appearance they have. Initial Personalization let players choose or modify the Avatars before gameplay starts so they can suit the players' preferences regarding either gameplay or theme. Character Development, which can either be a continuation of the Initial Personalization or an independent feature, let players fine-tune their Avatars as gameplay progresses. The effort these two patterns require from players is in itself a potential cause for them to feel an attachment to them; the Value of Effort makes it more compelling to care about the outcome. Although most often related to Characters, Narration Structures and diegetic-related patterns such as Loyalty can be applied when Avatars exist.
While the pattern Characters handles abstract Attributes of diegetic individuals, it may be pointless to argue that both patterns exist in a game if there only exists a few Attributes and these are constantly presented to players. A typical example of this can be found in First-Person Shooters such as Battlefield 1942 or the Quake series where HUD Interfaces display Health values, Ammunition left, and active Weapon; here it is easier to consider these patterns (especially Health as being linked to Avatars rather than Characters. Equipment Slots can allow limited handling of Equipment without having to commit to the use of complete Inventory systems. In contrast, Battlefield 2 and Team Fortress 2 store additional information related to Equipment and gameplay performances which qualify them to make use of the Characters pattern. Likewise, Invulnerabilities and Vulnerabilities (including Achilles' Heels) that do not develop over gameplay (due to being either permanent or very temporary) can be viewed as belong to Avatars unless the Characters pattern is used for additional purposes in games.
Avatars can actually be used in game sessions where their players are not present or providing input. Mules are Algorithmic Agents that ensure that Avatars continue taking actions while players are away from the game for extended periods of time. Ghosts are the use of Avatars to provide players of racing games with representations of how previous players (including themselves) gamed. An example of this is the platform game Icy Tower, which makes use of Avatars as markers for the highest floor reached by other players, making them part of a High Score List presented inside the Game Worlds. Algorithmic Agents can take over avatars to provide some actions to make the Avatars diegetic wait while the players is not providing input, but can also be used to support Drop-In/Drop-Out gameplay or Game Pauses in Multiplayer Games.
Avatars is a diegetic pattern which is impossible to use without some form of Game Worlds. Given their importance in the overall gameplay, they do tend to have Diegetically Outstanding Features if they have any Privileged Abilities or Movement. Although Third-Person Views (or reflections) are necessary for players to be able to perceive their own Avatars in Single-Player Games, and may be necessary to support Maneuvering, they easily break Emotional Engrossment since players may have perceive their Avatars than the game presents them. Games with purely First-Person Views can have implied Avatars, often encouraged through showing what Tool or Weapon is active as if held by the Avatars, and are easily induced in Multiplayer Games since players can see the other players' Avatars. Depending on the diegetic theme, some abilities might be more or less believable as belonging to the Avatars (e.g. being able to kill enemies at a distance in a realistic game without any type of ranged Weapons) and having these may weaken the presence of the pattern.
The difference or similarity of both appearance and abilities between players' Avatars and Enemies can be used to magnify the diegetic difference in power. This is often done for Boss Monsters (e.g. the Super Mario series and the God of War series) but is some cases for all Enemies (e.g. in Shadow of the Colossus). By having a large difference in size and at the same time restricting the movement of the opponent, the game can provide Challenging Gameplay but not overwhelmingly so even the depiction claims this.
When Avatars' fate are linked to how well players complete the gameplay, this can provide Emotional Attachment but this can also be done through supporting players in having sympathies towards the Avatars. This can be achieved diegetically through a design so that the Avatars have a appealing personality or appearance, have been mistreated, or have abilities players would like to have. However, Avatars do not usually have strongly developed personalities as this can prevent the players from interpreting what they want into the Avatar's actions. Further, if the Avatar can initiate actions on its own, e.g. in the form of Cutscenes, this can lessens the players' Freedom of Choice and may destroy an Illusion of Influence as well as their Emotional Atttachment directed towards other objects or players in the Game World.
Avatar Personalization is the ability to change Avatars' appearance, which although it does not direct affect gameplay can be important. While Avatars names are not part of their diegetic appearance, Naming can be seen as a variant of this personalization since it changes how the Avatars are presented to players. In games such as Tiger Woods PGA Tour and the third installment of the Fallout series, the Initial Personalization not only includes gameplay options but also purely cosmetic choices. By doing so, players have two different avenues to create Emotional Attachment to the Avatars and the game in general already before gameplay begins. For Multiplayer Games, Handles presented Geospatial Game Widgets hovering above the Avatars can make each players' identity unique. Going further, differences in Avatars' appearances or Game State Indicators can be vital to express Asymmetric Abilities and Privileged Abilities in order to support players, both in finding Achilles' Heels in enemies and supporting team play, and Team Combos in particular, within Teams. For games with Functional Roles these differences can easily be shown as changes in general appearance or clothing, while games with Vehicles or Equipment such as Armor, Cosmetic Game Items, Tools, and Weapons can simply integrate the presentation of these with the Avatars. In other cases, e.g. games with Power-Ups, Geospatial Game Widgets may be more appropriate instead, as for example is done for the showing that someone has the Quad Damage Power-Up in the Quake series.
Given that Avatars represent player agency in games and are inserted in the game when players enter games, they are examples of Game Element Insertion (having them present without players or their proxies controlling is possible but these version of Avatars should more correctly be called Horses). Avatars are one way of giving players' Focus Loci that maintains Diegetic Consistency since they are diegetic entities, and as such they typically provide Freedom of Choice and Illusion of Influence from specific points within Game Worlds. Since they are also tightly connected to the players' success or failure in the game, they are a natural point of Emotional Attachment. When they are the diegetic representations of players' Characters, they also are an expression of player Ownership. Depending on the level of personality and goals described through the Characters, and how acceptable those goals are to the players, Avatars also encourage Roleplaying, but since the appearance of an Avatar and its' possible actions restrict what players can do, the more these things are explicitly defined the more they restrict what type of Roleplaying is diegetically consistent. Even if the game does not present goals Roleplaying can emerge if players choose their own Player Defined Goals.
Representing the main protagonists in many cases, Agents are often vital for Thematic Consistency although they are also bounded by the specifics of the theme. Letting players engage in Naming their Avatars risks breaking this consistency but does provide a minimal level of Avatar Personalization.
As long as players are trying to achieve some form of goal while playing, Avatars are human-controlled Agents. When encountered in Multiplayer Games where players have goals to Eliminate each other, they are also Enemies. As Avatars are located within Game Worlds, Spatial Engrossment is a common effect of having the pattern. Games have Detective Structures when players' perception of the Game World is limited to one Avatar and only what that Avatar can perceive.
For games where the players are not co-located and only interact with each other through Avatars mediated by restricted Communication Channels, this combination gives the players a Possibility of Anonymity.
Agents, Capture, Combat, Detective Structures, Dexterity-Based Actions, Diegetic Consistency, Eliminate, Emotional Attachment, Enemies, Exploration, Focus Loci, Fog of War, Game Element Insertion, Illusion of Influence, Loyalty, Narration Structures, Ownership, Parallel Lives, Permadeath, Roleplaying, Spatial Engrossment, Spawn Points, Survive, Thematic Consistency
with Achilles' Heels or Vulnerabilities
Can Be Instantiated By
Can Be Modulated By
Ability Losses, Achilles' Heels, Algorithmic Agents, Armor, Attributes, Automated Responses, Avatar Personalization, Characters, Character Development, Companions, Controllers, Cosmetic Game Items, Cutscenes, Damage, Death Consequences, Diegetically Tangible Game Items, Diegetically Outstanding Features, Eliminate, Environmental Effects, Equipment, Equipment Slots, First-Person Views, Freedom of Choice, Game State Indicators, Geospatial Game Widgets, Handles, Health, Improved Abilities, Initial Personalization, Installations, Invulnerabilities, Limited Set of Actions, Line of Sight, Lives, Location-Fixed Abilities, Movement, Mules, Naming, New Abilities, Obstacles, Player/Character Skill Composites, Privileged Abilities, Privileged Movement, Safe Havens, Skills, Spawning, Stealing, Thematic Consistency, Third-Person Views, Tools, Trading, Transferable Items, Vehicles, Vulnerabilities, Weapons
Possible Closure Effects
Potentially Conflicting With
A rewrite of a pattern that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design.
- Definition of Avatar at Wikipedia.
- Wikipedia entry on Loas, describing the concept of possession in Voodoo.
- Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.
Karl Bergström, Aki Järvinen, Johan Peitz, Karl-Petter Åkesson