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Avatars, pen names, pseudonyms and the 4th Horseman of the Apocalypse

Isn’t it funny how things go round and round? It’s probably human nature to keep repeating history, but it sometimes really strikes me that an idea an author had long ago has never gone out of fashion, and is more relevant now than ever. Whatever idea they came up with has probably just undergone a bit of tweaking. Either that, or good Science Fiction and Fantasy writers can predict the future…

When I was re-reading Terry Pratchett’s Thief of Time Discworld novel (for the so-manyeth time, I’ve lost count), which was first published in 1994, I suddenly noticed a particular passage in a dialogue between the sweeper-monk “Lu-Tze”, and the milkman “Ronnie Soak”, who is the less terminal version of one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Kaos – or Chaos.

Yes, Four Horsemen, not Three. C’mon, everyone knows that!

Ronnie Soak has been building up a nice reservoir of supernatural rage while reduced to the role of dairy owner and milkman, because humans might have believed in him long ago, but they don’t anymore.

“But now Ronnie sagged. ‘That was then, of course’, he said. ‘It’s different now. I’m not what I used to be.’
‘No, no, obviously not, no’, said Lu-Tze soothingly. ‘But it’s all a matter of how you look at it, am I correct? Now, supposing a man – that is to say a – ‘
‘Anthropomorphic personification,’ said Ronnie Soak. ‘But I’ve always preferred the term “avatar”.’
Lu-Tze’s brow wrinkled. ‘You fly around a lot?’
‘That would be aviator.'”

Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett, p. 356
There you have it: Terry Pratchett (who was a bit of a techno-geek), back in 1994, 28 years ago, defined an avatar as the personification – or physical manifestation – that resulted from anthropomorphism.

Say it out loud…anthromopo…blblbmmmm…aw heck

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human traits, emotions, or intentions to non-human entities. (Therefore, from human on to non-human.) It is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology. It is why we like to think of our pets as people, why we give shapes and voices to imaginary things like fairies, angels and vampires, and why we see faces and facial expressions in wild animals and nature.

In other words, an avatar is something non-human that has been given human characteristics. That was then. These days, an avatar is a non-human thing – an image, picture, or an animated figure – of which the attributes become associated with the human who created it. (From non-human to human; the other way around from Ronnie Soak, a.k.a. Chaos.)

Avatars have a way of becoming more real than the humans that they represent, probably due to the main purpose for which they are created: anonymity.

But it’s not that simple. Consider the ground-breaking 2009 3D film Avatar, which required the gob-smacked audience to massively suspend their disbelief: The film’s title refers to a genetically engineered “Na’vi” body, operated from the brain of a remotely located human, that is used to interact with the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi. In other words, the N’avi body which looks like the Nai’vi version of character “Jake Sully”, is the non-human avatar to which the film’s title refers. That avatar has the attributes of the human which it represents.

“He” can go swinging on vines and flying, but in the meantime, back at the ranch, to mangle a phrase, Jake Sully is paralyzed, lying in a kind of life-support cocoon, with his head wired up to a computer. At the end of the film, Sully permanently leaves his human body and …errr, no idea how…permanently becomes one of the Na’vi by using his…avatar body?!

Avatar, 2009: she is – apparently – real, he is not.

In the sequel to Avatar, called Avatar: The Way of Water, which will be released later in 2022, I predict that the dividing line between avatars and real people will become so blurred that nothing will make sense anymore, as has happened in other walks of life.

Avatars and online gaming

An example of the daily practical use of an avatar is in online video gaming where a gamer whose avatar, or on-screen image, is what and how people think they are in real life. Just about everyone who has a YouTube channel or an online presence has an avatar of themselves depicted as an icon. This icon or picture is used to identify the owner of the channel and at the same time, hide their identity. Who exactly are these people, what do they know and what motivates them? In the majority of cases, it’s anyone’s guess.

On Oct. 3, 2022, a major news story broke about Dream, a Minecraft YouTuber and one of the most popular names on the internet, finally revealing his real face from behind a smiley-face mask that he had used for eight years. (He looks just like a normal, fairly attractive young guy.)

Yes, his avatar was a smiley face.

Twenty-four year old Dream has over 30 million (!!!) YouTube subscribers, with his worst-performing video viewed over 14 million times, and the best-performing one having around 40 million views. This, according to the Interweb, is important. Dream, whose real name is Clay, explained that he was finally letting go of his anonymity in order to live a more public life and meet with friends in real life without worrying about his face being leaked.

From pen names to avatars

An avatar can also be a pen name or pseudonym which has been expanded to include an image of the person who has that name. Lee Child (from my previous post) is a pen-name. All of the photos of him look so similar that one wonders if that is what he actually looks like in real life. In a way, that he-man image in his photos, with the confident pose and piecing stare, dressed in denim or leather and boots, is as much of a smoke-screen for who he is when at home, as an avatar is. It matches the manly-type protagonists of his action novels.

Poet Brian Bilston’s name, on the other hand, is a pseudonym, but he has a pipe-smoking avatar to match. In other photos, he hides his face behind a book. Does this image match who he is? I wouldn’t know, though I suspect he may be younger and better-looking.

Brian Bilston (a nom de plume) with his pipe.

Why avatars and pen-names?

Writers use pen names and avatars for marketing purposes, for instance if their real names are hard to say or remember, or because they want to keep their identities secret until they have succeeded, or because they want to keep their private lives private, permanently. Anonymity is probably the most important reason.

Avatars for musicians are fairly common. The music producer Deadmau5. a.k.a. Joel Zimmerman, wears a Disney-type mouse head when he performs, and it’s his symbol on his social media pages. The highly successful band, Gorillaz, has never been represented as anything but the animated graphics created by artist Jamie Hewlett, though the founders, Damon Albarn and Hewlett, obviously do the music production and use other real artists. Famous electronic music producers Daft Punk, who are actually Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, have always appeared on stage in outfits that look like space suits. And so on, there are too many examples to mention.

(Above, left to right: Singer Sia has, until recently, hidden her face behind large wigs and bows; music producer Deadmau5 performing in his giant mouse headpiece; the avatar band members that make up Gorillaz: “Murdoc Niccals”, “2-D”, Noodle”, and “Russel”; and Daft Punk in their familiar full-face helmets.)

I too have an avatar, with trademarked name (Cōdae) and image, which I developed for my music productions, because people need to connect with a person in order to connect with the art which that person makes. Humans will always anthropomorphize, and they don’t like seeing just a name or a thing. They want to see a person, a face, preferably, with eyes. (I have another pen name as author that I use for the bodice-ripper I am writing.)

Since I was unable to get away from having to have some kind of online identity for my music, I had to make a plan. This old face has seen better days, so I drew my own avatar, which is me – but prettied up and a lot younger. That’s what’s nice about having an avatar. It’s like virtual plastic surgery. In the beginning I found it absurd to use the image in my graphic designs, but now, it’s just another thing to do.

Animating an avatar

I discovered it is quite entertaining to create a new version of your avatar from Artificial Intelligence programs that generate new graphics from your input, like on What comes out, is you…but also not you. The next step is giving it life, so to speak, and there are apps for that. You can model an eerily life-like, animated, moving figure to your specifications, for instance on Unreal Engine’s MetaHuman platform.

Below is the meta-human that I created. Seems as natural as a real person, doesn’t it? I thought the facial expressions are particularly good. Other than the hair and eye colour, it doesn’t look like me, unfortunately.

A MetaHuman creation

What’s with the avatar?

The peculiar thing is that, like Ronnie Soak, the longer I use my specially developed avatar, the more “real” it becomes. I sink into the background and become only a note and a name in the album credits.

In Thief of Time, when Ronnie eventually throws away his white milkman’s outfit and goes back to being a fiery god, riding on a horse that breathes lava, out to generate mayhem, you almost want to applaud him. He might be scary, but he’s as much the real thing as an avatar can be.

I think that Terry Pratchett, way back when, knew what peculiar behaviours the use of avatars could lead to. He actually foretold the future.

Some of my avatar variations

Here is a video of the numerous more realistic, and less realistic variations of my avatar, before I settled on the one at the end of the video. That face, while at least three decades younger than me, has a couple of things that are still me: eye-, hair-, and skin-colour, nose, jawline, and the ever-present headphones.

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