Despite the widespread use of avatars, it is unknown which Internet forums were the first to use them; the earliest forums did not include avatars as a default feature, and they were included in unofficial "hacks" before eventually being made standard. Avatars on Internet forums serve the purpose of representing users and their actions, personalizing their contributions to the forum, and may represent different parts of their persona, beliefs, interests or social status in the forum.
The traditional avatar system used on most Internet forums is a small (80x80 to 100x100 pixels, for example) square-shaped area close to the user's forum post, where the avatar is placed in order for other users to easily identify who has written the post without having to read their username. Some forums allow the user to upload an avatar image that may have been designed by the user or acquired from elsewhere. Other forums allow the user to select an avatar from a preset list or use an auto-discovery algorithm to extract one from the user's homepage.
Some avatars are animated, consisting of a sequence of multiple images played repeatedly (see image to the left). In such animated avatars, the number of images as well as the time in which they are replayed vary considerably.
Forum avatars have been tested as a means of advertising.
In 1995, KeepTalking, a product of UNET2 Corporation, was one of the first companies to implement an avatar system into their web chat software.
In 1995, Cybertown first introduced 3D (three dimensional) avatars to internet chat.
Instant messaging avatars are usually very small. AIM icons are 48x48 pixels, although many icons can be found online that typically measure anywhere from 50x50 pixels to 100x100 pixels in size. A wide variety of these imaged avatars can be found on web sites and popular eGroups such as Yahoo! Groups.
The latest use of avatars in instant messaging is dominated by dynamic avatars. The user chooses an avatar that represents him while chatting and, through the use of text to speech technology, enables the avatar to talk the text being used at the chat window. Another form of use for this kind of avatar is for video chats/calls. Some services, such as Skype (through some external plugins) allow users to use talking avatars during video calls, replacing the image from the user's camera with an animated, talking avatar.
AIM buddy icons have been used as an experimental form of viral marketing by some advertising firms.
Such Avatars can also be powered by a Digital conversation which provides a little more structure than those using NLP, offering the user options and clearly defined paths to an outcome. This kind of Avatar is known as a Structured Language Processing or SLP Avatar.
Both types of Avatar provide a cost effective and efficient way of engaging with consumers.
Avatars in video games are essentially the player's physical representation in the game world. In most games, the player's representation is fixed, however increasingly games offer a basic character model, or template, and then allow customization of the physical features as the player sees fit. For example, Carl Johnson, the avatar from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, can be dressed in a wide range of clothing, can be given tattoos and haircuts, and can even body build or become obese depending upon player actions.
Aside from an avatar's physical appearance, its dialogue, particularly in cut scenes, may also reveal something of its character. A good example is the crude, action hero stereotype, Duke Nukem. Other avatars, such as Gordon Freeman from Half-Life, who never speaks at all, reveal very little of themselves (in fact the original game never showed the player what he looked like).
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are the source of the most varied and sophisticated avatars. Customization levels differ between games; For example in EVE Online, players construct a wholly customized portrait, using a software that allows for several changes to facial structure as well as preset hairstyles, skin tones, etc. . However, these portraits appear only in in-game chats and static information view of other players. Usually, all players appear in gigantic spacecraft that give no view of their pilot, unlike in most other RPGs.
Alternatively, City of Heroes offers one of the most detailed and comprehensive in-game avatar creation processes, allowing players to construct anything from traditional superheroes to aliens, medieval knights, monsters, robots and many more.
In non-gaming universes, the criteria avatars have to fulfill in order to become useful can depend to a great extent on the age of potential users. Research suggests that younger users of virtual communities put great emphasis on fun and entertainment aspects of avatars and their practical functionalities (such as whispering). They are also interested in the simple ease of use of avatars, and their ability to retain the user’s anonymity. Meanwhile, older users pay great importance to an avatar’s ability to reflect their own appearance, identity and personality. Most older users also want to be able to use an avatar’s expressive functionalities (such as showing emotions), and are prepared to learn new ways of navigation to do it. Social scientists at Stanford's Virtual Human Interaction Lab examine the implications, possibilities and transformed social interaction that occur when people interact via avatars.
Avatar-based non-gaming universes are usually populated by age groups whose requirements concerning avatars are fulfilled. For example, most users of Habbo Hotel, Ty Girlz and Webkinz are aged 10 to 15 years, while users of Gaia Online and WeeWorld are 13 to 18. The reason may well be the properties and functionalities of the avatars of these virtual communities. In contrast, There and Kaneva Game Platform target users aged 22 to 49 and their avatars allow for a wide range of social interactions, including the expression of emotions: laughing, waving, blowing kisses and rude gestures. The Palace, most of whose users seem to be older, allows users to use their own images as avatars. This turns the avatar into a direct reflection of users' real-life appearance, as desired by older users.
Some researchers have suggested that customizable avatars in non-gaming worlds tend to be biased towards lighter skin colors and against darker skin colors, especially in those of the male gender. These observations are less true of Second Life, where avatars range from lifelike humans to more fanciful robots, animals, and mythical creatures, with avatars created by players. The main Second Life grid is open only to adults, and participation is driven by social, artistic and commercial motivations.
Holzwarth, Martin, Janiszewski, Chris, Neumann, Marcus: "The Influence of Avatars on Online Consumer Shopping Behavior" in: Journal of Marketing, October 2006, Volume 70, Issue 4
Meadows, Mark Stephen (2008) "I, Avatar; The Culture and Consequences Of Having A Second Life," Peachpit / New Riders, ISBN 0321533399
Wood, Natalie T, Michael R. Solomon and Basil G. Englis (2005) “Personalization of Online Avatars: Is the Messenger as Important as the Message?” International Journal of Internet Marketing and Advertising, 2 (1/2), 143-161.