Lauren Gelman is Dean of the State of Play Academy and a lecturer and associate director of the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School.

Apr 23 2007

Next-Gen Ed

Cyberidentities bridge real and online classroom experiences.

Professors and admins find their cyberidentities bridge real and
online classrooms.

Participation in a virtual world is no longer just for gamers, and even the task of designing your avatar can be fraught with meaning.

The term avatar, popularized in 1992 by Neal Stephenson in his cyber-punk novel Snow Crash, refers to the computer image that represents you in your online life. But what at first seems like another fun game element is actually filled with philosophical questions. I did not anticipate having to contend with identity issues like these when I took on the role of dean of the State of Play Academy when the academy opened last fall. As it has turned out, addressing these issues has played a huge part in achieving my larger goals for SOPA.

First, you have to choose a name for your avatar. When I initially logged onto's virtual world I chose the user name “Gelman.” This seemed logical, because it is already part of my online identity. I use it as an alias for blogging and social networking, it's my screen name for instant messaging and the name I use in my e-mail address.

But once in-world, people actually call you by your avatar's name. So I became Gelman. As dean of a law and technology academy, having my students refer to me this way seems a bit casual. And while Gelman is a term logically attached to me in physical space, I can now think of many alternatives (for example, dean of SOPA, Dean, or even Lauren123) that would have made more sense. It would also have made it possible for me to de-link my physical identity from my virtual one.

The problem is that once you create a name for your avatar, you cannot change it without creating a new avatar. And creating a new avatar results in a loss of the reputation you have developed in your online personality.

Next, you have to figure out what you want your avatar to look like. In some virtual worlds, this can range from a perfect representation of your physical attributes to a fantastical one where you adopt wings, a purple skin tone or a Gumby shape. You either create a faithful representation of yourself or use the opportunity to create a whole new you.

Two of my colleagues who participated in SOPA's classes took completely differently approaches. One created an almost perfect replica of himself, from his uniform of khaki pants and blue button-down oxford shirt to his glasses and receding hairline. The other used a fantastical representation who sports a pinstriped suit, monocle and Afro, and flies around the world in a UFO. What is funny is the direction each adopted perfectly reflects their offline personalities. The goal is to find value in the casualness that comes from game immersion while creating an environment conducive to conversation and learning.

The Virtual You

Creating an avatar offers the ability to reinvent yourself. Here are some things you should think about before you begin the process:

  • Settle whether you want a name that links your avatar with your given name or other names you use online, or if you want to choose one that allows you the freedom of anonymity.
  • Chose a name you will be comfortable answering to in the wide variety of interactions you will have online, including teaching and attending classes and social engagements.
  • etermine whether you prefer to take advantage of the opportunity to establish a unique look that is instantly identifiable, or prefer a look that blends in with the community.
  • Ask whether you want people to be able to recognize you offline after they've met you in-world.
  • Decide whether you want your avatar name and look to carry through across the different virtual worlds you might visit.