I, Realmstalker, Being of Sound Mind

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

January 10, 2006

Ted and I had a conversation last month in WoW that has stuck with me. We are all familiar by now with the explosion of exchange in virtual worlds, whether of the moral (gifts, reciprocity) or market varieties. But what about inheritance? In these worlds, that appear able to persist beyond not only the duration of our interest in them but also, perhaps,  our mortality, will there come a time when we want to find the right home for the valuable, but also particularly meaningful objects we have? But the possibilties don’t stop there. Consider bequeathing an avatar…

Rather than the power-leveled, commodified items, characters, and currency for sale, let us consider for a moment what bequeathing an avatar might mean. We may find that to do so helps us think through some of the thorniest issues about both avatars and the nature of things of value in synthetic worlds.

The apparent nature of the avatar as both a representative, or even form, of the self, on one hand, and as a separable object, on the other, has provided a particularly intriguing duality for researchers. In Synthetic Worlds (2005, p. 110), for example, Ted considers the extent to which an avatar may not only represent a user in a world (to others and to the user herself), it can also come to bear a history, with specific experiences, objects, and credentials attached, irrevocably, to it. Thus, there are attributes which accumulate within the avatar itself, as an artifact, that cannot be transferred out of it.

I thought about this further in connection with a broader project of mine to  understand the various forms of capital that are created in virtual worlds: market, social, and cultural (you can find the full essay here). In the course of that, a connection to the ethnographic literature sprang to mind. The avatar bears a striking similarity to formalized, inheritable ritual roles, such as are passed down in the Tsimshian potlatch of the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest potlatch is famous, of course, as an example of the destruction of material wealth by a lineage (“house”) in order to achieve status. But the most recent work on the Tsimshian (Roth, 2002) emphasizes their potlatch not as an occasion for the spectacular destruction of excess wealth, but rather as an event about the inheritance of “names”, the ritual offices held by houses, and specifically individuals within them, which contain an extensive set of obligations and powers. They are represented materially by robes, blankets, and headdresses, and they are passed down only under the proper conditions, involving extensive material outlay, and this effort is itself risk-filled, subject to all the contingencies of any large-scale and involved social drama.

These names have the same dual characteristics as avatars: at times they are objectified (such as in the objects above, or when listed as part of the lineage’s property), while at other times  they are directly and inextricably associated with the unique capacities and idiosyncracies of the persons holding them at any given time. As Roth writes (2002, p. 132-133), “The dual nature of names as objects of wealth and as personages…corresponds to the dual nature of a structure of names as both a store of wealth and a social structure of individuals.”

While avatars are currently strongly associated with individuals and therefore do not (yet) index a social structure within synthetic worlds in anything but an embryonic way (through their association with guilds, most obviously), the dual principle which Roth notes applies nonetheless: avatars have characteristics of objects or property and characteristics of personas. Certain avatars, as powerful figures in guilds and the like, have acquired similar obligations and relations. Might we yet see the day when these avatars are transferred, with great ceremony, to other users as a matter of course within virtual worlds, as their original owners pass them along due to death or other life changes?

The French anthropologist Maurice Godelier has called inheritance and exchange the “twin foundations of society,” the two primary means through which culture is transmitted through space and time. If we take seriously the notion that synthetic worlds are persistent, and that the things of value made within them are not limited to commodities, then the first “willed” avatar transfer can’t be far away.

Actually, given how things normally work around here, I would ask: has this perhaps already happened?


Castronova, Edward. (2005). Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Roth, Christopher F. (2002). Goods, Names, and Selves: Rethinking the Tsimshian Potlatch. American Ethnologist. 29(1), 123-150.

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