Bailenson, J.N., & Blascovich, J. (2004) Avatars. Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, Berkshire Publishing Group, 64-68.


Avatar derives from the Sanskrit word avatarah, meaning “descent” and refers to the incarnation the descent into this world-of a Hindu god. A Hindu deity embodied its spiritual being when interacting with humans by appearing in either human or animal form. In the late twentieth century, the term avatar was adopted as a label for digital representations of humans in online or virtual environments. Although many credit Neal Stephenson with being the first to use avatar in this new sense in his seminal science fiction novel Snow Crash (1992), the term and concept actually appeared as early as 1984 in online multiuser dungeons, or MUDs (role-playing environments), and the concept, though not the term, appeared in works of fiction dating back to the mid 1970s. This entry explores concepts, research, and ethical issues related to avatars as digital human representations. (We restrict our discussion to digitalavatars, excluding physical avatars such as puppetsand robots. Currently, the majority of digital avatarsare visual or auditory information though there isno reason to restrict the definition as such.)