Muddled Times
Issue:Issue 11, August 2001

Avatar, Character, Persona. Immerse yourself...

Some people just don't get it.

In my quest to archive all the writings about MUDs and their descendents that I can possibly find, I come across many articles concerning identity issues. Some of these are heavyweight academic papers in keynote books on cyberculture, others are pieces from the heart by players on their personal web sites. The academics have the weight of formal paradigm on their side, but they don't always understand the true nature of what they're describing; the players know in their souls what they want to say, but often lack the means to express themselves in terms that allow their views to be taken seriously.

This article addresses one such point of friction that I find particularly annoying because there is a growing corpus of research based upon it that completely misses the point about playing online games like MUDs. It concerns immersion.

First, we have players. Players are real-world people who are sitting at a computer connected to some virtual world (usually a game, hence the term "player").

An avatar is a player's representative in a world. It's really just a puppet. It does as it's told, it reports what happens to it, and it acts as a general conduit for the player and the world to interact. It may or may not have some graphical representation, it may or may not have a name. It refers to itself as a separate entity and communicates with the player as such: "I can't open the door". It's a mere convenience, a tool.

Contrast this with a character. A character is a player's representation in a world. It's a whole level of immersion deeper. Your character is an extension of yourself, a personality that you don when entering the world. The game reports things that happen to the character as if they were happening to you: "you can't open the door". You can feel quite upset if one of your characters dies. "Aw no, they killed Huey! Poor little guy...".

Many of the people who write about avatars actually mean characters, but they don't understand there's a difference. Avatars are dolls, characters are simulacra.

Neither avatars nor characters, though, are people. Neither are anything to do with what makes online worlds so completely absorbing. There's a level of immersion beyond that of the character: the persona.

A persona is a player, in a world. Any separate distinction of character has gone - the player is the character. You're not role-playing a being, you are that being; you're not assuming an identity, you are that identity. If you lose a fight, you don't feel that your character has died, you feel that you have died. There's no level of indirection: you are there.

This is what so many people looking at online games from the outside fail to understand, and what so many people on the inside know instinctively but can't explain. Avatars and characters are just steps to immersion, they're not really immersion themselves at all. When player and persona merge as one, that's immersion, that's what people can get from these games that they can't get anywhere else.

That's when people stop playing a MUD and start living it.

This article first appeared on, a website acting as a portal for other MUD2 websites, before it was disbanded.

... click here to return to the front page.