published in :ec/art S: Vol. 2, 2000, pp. 333-339, :ec/art S: publishing site, Paris

Computer as social contextualiser & ideatre - towards the promising future of avatar worlds

Mika Tuomola
Media Lab of Helsinki University of Arts and Design


avatar, avatar world
In the original Sanskrit the word 'avatarah' stands for a Hindu deity's incarnation on earth. In global usage today, 'avatar' refers to man's incarnation or representation in virtual reality, a computer generated space that creates a sense of being inside it. An 'avatar world' thus designates a virtual reality which can be inhabited by representations of people. Currently, the term 'avatar world' is most often used to refer to communities, social meeting places, playgrounds, game worlds and study-places that represent their virtual participants visually on the Internet or other computer networks. Avatar worlds presented on the following pages are mainly of the first three types, including the Avaterra worlds by Inc., the blaxxun worlds [] by blaxxun interactive and the OnLive Traveller worlds by Jointly they gather hundreds of thousands of people globally who have chosen a virtual life-style; the first two worlds even offer them their own virtual homes or private spaces, and these are in great demand. Dramatic events in these worlds could and do increase the world participant-numbers stikingly.

social contextualiser
'Social contextualiser' is the term currently in frequent use by the writer and the avatar world researcher at the Interactive Institute John Wentworth to refer to the most revolutionary feature of networked computer. Everything that puts the Individual and her/his Thoughts and Action into the context of Community, Communication and Collaboration may be considered a 'social contextualiser.' Above and beyond this, social contextualising is putting the three Cs into the context of other communities, communications and collaborations, and with frames larger than any of them independently. The extent of this contextualisation may be said to qualify a value - note, 'a value,' not ignoring other moral implications - of a social contextualiser, the highest development of which can then be abstracted as a shared universal consciousness, capable of action by thought. In our idealistic use of the term, we have embraced the Socratic method of intercommunication leading either to a communal confession of ignorance with a promise of further investigation, or to eliciting an innate truth.


Think of the networked computer not only as tool and a medium that integrates previous tools and media, but also - and especially - as a social contextualiser, which juxtaposes, contrasts and harmonises, in real time and beyond, all networked individual and communal action and its representations of reality.


In the treasury of our hard disks today, amongst those of us who have the privilege to possess and patience to use computers, we have remarkable, individually selected and personally meaningful collections of human culture and knowledge. Writing this article, I myself browse through, open and close, ponder upon and sometimes copy and paste text and images from content-rich documents located in full folders with names relevant to me personally, like Avatarah, The Bard, Daisy, Quotes, I, Italy, Memory, Oscar, Saroyan and Teaching. With my idiosyncratic tendency to personalise things, I have named my hard disk Felix, 'the Happy One', and have humbly located all the other folders inside my main personal 'Mika on Felix' folder, so accessing them is just visiting him.

This procedure of naming one's hard disk and computer is not unusual, I am glad to note, for my own illusion of sanity. I can tell a lot about how others relate to their computers by reading the names under their hard disk icons: the shoot-'em-up game player's Killer, the network service administrator's Gropius (the Bauhaus architect) for my university department's group use, and the actor-programmer's Hamlet forever wondering for what sort of action it has been created. Sometimes people change the names of their folders to suit their new main activity. I do the same on Felix, the name that I've carried through some four or five computers. In my more unproductive and melancholic times, I call my computer companion in work and leisure lady Phoenix, the Bird of Fire, who hopefully is soon to be reborn from the ashes. My renamed computer brings me daily hope and I think it pleases her.

It is as if I have characterised my computer for the stage, for action in some larger plot than my personal activities with him/her. Whether consciously personifying our computers themselves or not, we are starting to use them more and more as representatives of ourselves on the larger platform of all computers in a network. They deliver parts of the content of their hard-disk treasuries to our e-mails, faxes and real-time communication. They can remember it all. We merely connect and re-create the digitally memorised bits to suit new contexts with greater or smaller changes in form. Felix/Phoenix changes slowly according to the contextual needs I have in the community of my colleagues and friends. Constructing a character to help represent oneself in a world-wide community is work in constant progress.


"All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,"
(Shakespeare, As You Like It II,vii)

The computer, networked, has become the social contextualiser of our personalised treasuries of information. Every bit that we change changes a little the nature of the computer here imagined as a character, thus making us, users, actors on a network stage, the place of character-driven action, where all action is finally drama. The play gets rewritten every instant, and characters make their past developments visible so as to maintain a core identity by which they can be recognised.

Information stored on a computer is still rather stable, not fluidly received by, or in use on the network, but it does not need to be so in the future. Imagine being able to configure your computer character, the avatar made out of the bits of information you find relevant and touching, to represent yourself on the virtual stage of a network, in accordance with any action you perform on it now in the context of your previous performances. Imagine your procedure being as smooth as that of an actor, interpreting her/his character to the audience that receives and interprets each change in the context of previous character-developments during the play. Likewise, as you act, your computer character on the network stage is perceived differently by fellow participants, individual by individual, depending on their personal configurations of relevance. Everything you do becomes a real-time dialogue that at the same time opens the depths of all that you have chosen to store and link your thought development with. And, of course, your newest thought development, or piece of dialogue or public speech, becomes the latest movement on your character's path of action, realised in the new appearance of the avatar.

You are a node in network. Orienting yourself anew on this inconceivably large stage, you move closer to characters you have never encountered before on your journey. Maybe the movement did not happen because of your idea- and content-links, but because of those of another character, with whom you have yourself created a particularly close relationship at some point in your action history. New, unforeseen actions are bound to take place. Do you ready yourself for a conflict judging by the appearance of this new character, start flirting, or simply ignore her/his presence? If you connect with her/him by your own character-action, you are bound to connect to a whole new area on the network. Maybe you don't have time now, but would like to fix this character in your memory, and later make the journey to contact her/him again.

All this happens on all levels of (audio-visual and other) representation used by people, and can fit itself to all codes of communication from the symbolist performance of the East to the current popular naturalism of the West. To use your computer as a social contextualiser is to inhabit a storyspace, a narrative landscape (Murray, 1997), a robustly represented stage for drama without a pre-written conclusion. You use the network to share and receive more of the experience of information, including vibrant passions for storing and using it, and to connect and collaborate with other people and communities with greater emotional attachment to your action than in any other form of mediated communication.

Think of the social contextualiser not like any previous tool or medium, but as an avatar world constantly in the process of creation by all networked individual and communal action, and its representations of reality, gaining coherence and usability by varying dramatic organisations of its inhabitants' characterisations and staging, and their delivery. (1)


(1) Computers as drama is in no way a new metaphor and was first perhaps most convincingly introduced by Brenda Laurel already in the end of the 80s in "Computers as Theatre" (Laurel, 1993). Her beginning statement: "Think of the computer, not as a tool, but as a medium." has obviously influenced my beginning statement. However, though highly appreciating her pioneering contribution, I have many problems with her view point of the relevance of Aristotelian drama in design of computer mediated action. The most important one is that she emphasises dramatic Action, while I emphasise Character (and, elsewhere, Pattern) in order to give room for the always improvised Action of computer user. Her emphasis follows obviously from the popular reading of Poetics (Aristotle, 1967) intended to analyse great, non-participatory and non-improvised tragedies. It can be read differently, and more fruitfully, by making the dramatic elements non-hierarchical and fluid for computer user as improvisation actor. My reading coloured by Commedia dell'Arte (see the Note 3 of "Ideatre Š Towards the Promising Future of Avatar Worlds") and improvisational forms of theatre may make a classicist cry on my lecture on Poetics, but it is on the basis of this "Computer as Social Contextualiser" section. (Another major difference between the "network stage" introduced here and Laurel's "Computers as Theatre" is that I find the human-human agent relationship and computers as a communication device the most important point of concentration, while Laurel concentrates on computer-human agent relationship and theatricalisation of it.)


As in the conclusion of "Computer as Social Contextualiser," I see avatar worlds, the realisations of which started in the late 80s, as among the most promising technologies for future systems of information - or rather, experience, knowledge and wisdom - management, and communal communication and collaboration. As such, they also offer an unmapped area for new forms of drama and performance, which I, as a dramatic artist into computers, also find very exciting.

Avatar and avatar world-design is not only about designing the world as a complete entity, with all that should be in it, but also about defining needs, lacks, and what should not be in it. Any dramatist - thinking of goal-driven characters, for example (1) - would expect this in the case of virtual worlds and characters that, like drama, are realities completely fabricated by people. In developing the computer as a social contextualiser and a place of representation, this Gap Design approach - design of functional lacks, creation of needs, black holes in visualisation insisting upon fulfilment, scripting of existentially relevant questions, gaps in the fabric of fabricated reality - may prove in practice more fruitful than any approach optimising completion. We may in the end be best satisfied by actively doing the 'filling in' of our characters, our incarnations, ourselves.


In becoming or inhabiting a dramatised - or appropriately 'gapped' - avatar, we put our very selves into a new context, not only in an avatar world, but in life in general. New realisations arise, as we suddenly experience how others relate to our visual image and movement. How much am I restricted by my physical gender and appearance? Being able to characterise myself at will in an avatar world, in a medium, I am prompted to ask: what sort of images of me and of people in general are the mainstream, non-participatory media representing? What kind of social expectations and requirements do they create concerning me, people, life? Am I passively following them? Do I wish to do so? Who I am I truly, and how true am I to my knowledge of myself?

In the physical world, we are tied to numerous social expectations concerning our restrictively alterable flesh. Avatars offer a spectrum of experimentation with our identity, limited only by our dreams and imagination. "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on." (Shakespeare, The Tempest IV,i) This identity play is not only natural to us, as sociologist Sherry Turkle has shown with much reference to Jacques Lacan's decentralised formation of identities. (2) (Turkle, 1997) It may be the only way to create a world and a society, in which we can breathe freely, as we are able to alter our appearance and thus the whole context of our life. "I'm just hoping that face-to-face I can find a way to spend some time being the online me," says a woman in an interview for Turkle's research on identity on the Internet.

Earlier societies, prior to our one-way-stream media controlled era of the 'Chosen Ones' as media figures, have recognised the need for changing images of identity, whether we turn to the masked celebration of the communal past of the 'Mud Men' of Makehuku (Emigh, 1996) or the Medieval carnival. (3) "...there's no division between performers and observers... At the time of carnival one can live only according to its own rules." "In this sense, carnival wasn't a form of artistic theatre, but like life's own real (but temporary) form. It wasn't only acted out, but actually almost lived out (during the carnival)." "So, in carnival the play itself becomes life for a while." (Baktin, 1995)

As revealed in "Computer as Social Contextualiser," my computer hard disk changes names between masculine Felix and feminine Phoenix, the two sides of content for me. To me it comes as no surprise that the avatar that attracts me most in the blaxxun worlds has been the BOY.GIRL twin avatar (see Image 4) designed by Merja Puustinen and Andy Best. As the twin Lumia, I can re-live my child's rebelliousness and introduce myself realised as two genders, not just one.

Currently, my most frequently used avatar in other avatar worlds is Lumi (see Images 1 & 5), who as a snow leopard is not bound by any social and cultural expectations created by specific human features. Lumi was inspired by my lover's pet name and fairy tale character for me a few years ago. As it has remained my most common avatar, I suppose love is not blind, after all, but someone who is love with us sees deeper to the fluid cores of our identities than we would on our own.


Lumi, as a true identity, a fictional character and an avatar in daily use in relationship to others, has become a piece of art and of everyday life, a work of personal experience on Self and Us in the concrete, or rather, in the fluid. A new form of art has emerged, or several: avatar-design bearing some resemblance to physical mask- and costume- design, inhabitable virtual space-design with some resemblance to architecture and set design, and animating or living into an avatar somewhat akin to acting a character. Beyond any doubt, the 'ideatre' (4) embryo, the art of creating places and representations of ideas, in terms of representational arts is closest to theatre, particularly because action in an avatar world takes place in real time and in shared space, just as it does in theatre. 'Nowness' is shared by both these art forms, but the embryo is unlimited by physical restrictions. Anything we see in the movies and virtual worlds today, every little bit of information lying on our hard disks - or, indeed, in our dreams and mental images- can become the place of 'nowness' for avatars.

Animating or living into an avatar concretely and consciously in 'ideatre' will no doubt give birth to dreams and worlds of ideas we cannot yet even begin to imagine. We will find new ways of creating, communicating and collaborating by representation, just as today's film artist does in finding new ways to tell a story using the completely artificial language of moving-image editing and collage. She/he discovers things that no one could have discovered before communities of people learned to understand and communicate with this constructed language of ideas and emotions in which most of us are now fluent, even though it is only a hundred years old.

At their best, avatar realities do not become, nor are they, alternatives to reality for escapists, but rather a fluid part of everyday life and art, dramatic experiences giving us a heightened sense of living. Ultimately, they become the social contextualiser of all our action.


(1) A good example of avatar goal design can be seen in the Circle Jerks group avatar that actually consists of three avatars, each of which can be completely independent of the other (see Image 2). The hyperactive, silly bird Galf brings to mind Commedia dell'Arte's Arlecchino, as the wagon Kopf is obviously Pantalone, the grumpy old man. The flying, daydreaming Egg could be a virtual version of a poetic Lover character. (Rudlin, 1994) Alone, Galf is unstable and hard to control in its movement, Kopf is immobile and Egg is floating undirected, free of virtual gravity, unable to join the shared earth level of a 3D world. Together, if they choose to connect to the engine-wagon-passenger formulation, they overcome their individual weaknesses and begin negotiating how to perform drama and/or to live virtual life together and when it is useful to be united and when not. Besides borrowing characterisations from Commedia dell'Arte, the design group of Circle Jerks recognised the most important quality of the improvisational theatre form, the collaboration, which is also the most required quality of any virtual community. For the purposes of a virtual carnival they participated in, Circle Jerks were like a three-part mock horse. For the purposes of collaboration in an avatar world in the long run, they make it easier for people to connect with each other by an avatar design solution that insists upon it.

(2) Turkle makes an interesting observation on why it might be hard for us to accept the theory of multiple identities and their natural play: "While in recent years, many psychologists, social theorists, psychoanalysts, and philosophers have argued that the self should be thought of as essentially decentered, the normal requirements of everyday life exert strong pressure on people to take responsibility for their actions and to see themselves as intentional and unitary actors. This disjuncture between theory (the unitary self is an illusion) and lived experience (the unitary self is the most basic reality) is one of the main reasons why multiple and decentered theories have been slow to catch on - or when they do, why we tend to settle back quickly into older, centralized ways of looking at things." It may be that the increasing involvement of people in avatar worlds will remove "the disjuncture between theory and lived experience." At least it has done so for me and for most of the people I know frequenting the worlds. Having the disjuncture removed, I can confidently add that ethical code and taking responsibility for one's actions does not insist upon unitary identity. Rather, my multiple identities seem to strengthen my sense of ethics by a larger sense of compassion, as being able to experience events in various appearances (for example, as a female avatar, who gets sexually harassed much easier than a male avatar).

(3) "The primitive notion, usually developed among normative circles, of some linear development forward will be done away with. It will be found out that any truly relevant step forward is always accompanied with returning to a primeval beginning, or more correctly, with a renewal of the beginning. It is possible to move forward only by recollection, not by oblivion." (Baktin, 1979) This is why I have recently looked into Commedia dell'Arte as a design metaphor for avatar worlds, originally inspired by dramaturge Esko Salervo, who concludes his research paper with three aspects of "this farting adult play requiring high professional skills" that challenge the current mainstream theatre: "1. Commedia dell'Arte was theatre in open interaction with its environment. It didn't try to regulate the environment from above, but rather developed according to its audience. The movement was from bottom to top: everyday human life and absurd accidents had more actuality than ceremonies given from above. 2. Commedia dell'Arte showed that there can be theatre without the domination of prewritten text. It developed an alternative of its own that used well-functional elements many times ('chiusetti') and poorly functional elements only by accident. 3. Commedia dell'Arte's history reminds us that a form of representation that does not maintain a relationship with the surrounding reality and cultural circumstances, will die." (Salervo, 1982) The three aspects also challenge the centrally governed mass media, as they at the same time show direction to the promise of the networked computer as a bottom-up, fluid and meaningful social contextualiser, medium and tool. Many current avatar worlds are answering to the challenge by developing in interaction with an inhabiting community, as they always produce their 'text' in real time improvisations and will die if they lose a meaningful relationship with the surrounding reality and culture of their inhabitants. In my article "Drama in the Digital Domain - Commedia dell'Arte, Characterisation, Collaboration and Computers" (Tuomola, 1999) I discuss more deeply the possibilities of transforming practices of Commedia dell'Arte to avatar worlds.

(4) For avatar arts' resemblance to theatre, I'd like to suggest this word to address avatar worlds and action in them in general, as does the word 'theatre' address the place and piece of theatre. Theatre originates from the Greek 'theatron,' "a place for seeing, especially for dramatic representation, theater. Theatron is derived quite logically from the verb theasthai, "to gaze at, contemplate, view as spectators, especially in the theater," from thea, "a viewing."" (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1992, Houghton Mifflin Company) 'Ideatre' thus refers to a place of ideas, thoughts and conceptions, fluid products of mental activity, that do not and cannot exist physically. Even with resemblance to physical reality, all things in avatar worlds are just ideas of persons, objects, laws of nature and so forth, though they can be concretely experienced. 'Ideatre' can be a place and piece of art, but it can also be a place and piece of work, conversation, entertainment and virtual commerce of symbols that may have a reference object in the physical world as well. 'Ideatre' can be the future of personal computer completely integrated with a network, the artistically and communicatively powerful social contextualiser discussed in "Computer as Social Contextualiser."


Image 1
John Wentworth as the avatar Cadet and me as the avatar Lumi (both avatars, originally named as Giraffe and Leola, by Stasia McGehee) in the OnLive world Carousel (by Ali Ebtekar with Steve DiPaola, audio by James Grunke, Copyright ©, 1998-99. OnLive, OnLive ACS, and OnLive TCS are trademarks of All rights reserved. All other trademarks are the property of their respective owners.). Projected on the screen of a movie theatre at Helsinki University of Art and Design, Finland, we are tutoring from Malmš, Sweden, a brainstorming session for the physical audience of the Nordic Interactive Collaboration conference, March 2000. We do this sort of appearances a lot and invite speakers to participate in this manner at Malmš or wherever we are. Though representing ourselves as friendly characters, the fluidity between real and virtual is mainly suffering from cultural conditioning: appreciation of media figures seems to give avatar participators unnecessarily much authority. Computer network may be developed into an appropriate social contextualiser for greater sharing and equality among men, but in order for it to work fluidly between real and virtual, there are many representational issues and culturally automated classifications to be considered.

Image 2
The Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) avatars Circle Jerks (by Aron Hallborg, Martin Berglund and Helene Madsen), MrsManson (by Lenny Carlsson) and Marvin (by Christina Worch), and the K3 "No body - No Coffee" CafŽ, the VRML model of the real cafŽ at Malmš University Arts and Communication Department (by Horst Kiechle). The avatar designs were presented live online for the first time in the K3 CafŽ, now located in the Suburbs [] of the blaxxun world Cybertown []. The avatars are results of the "Avatar Design and VRML" workshop held at Malmo University Arts and Communication Department, Sweden, October-November 1999, by Lone Malmborg and me.

Image 3
The VRML avatars Wimbelthorn (by Peter Lyster), Jahanistel's Monster (by Christel Nordstršm, Jakob Svensson and Johan Torstensson) and Jaya (by Simon Jšrgensen and Anette SandegŒrd) from the "Avatar Design and VRML" workshop.

Image 4
The VRML avatars Lumia (my own avatar name for the BOY.GIRL avatar by Meetfactory Ltd.) and Jaya beginning a virtual carnival, November 1999, in the blaxxun interactive world Cybertown (by Cybertown, Inc.).

Image 5
Me as the avatar Lumi and the avatar Crydias the Golden Knight discussing the "Not Alone" performance in the turf Ami of the avatar world Dreamscape (Copyright (2000 by, Inc. All rights reserved.), where the event took place. The community uniting, participatory avatar performance of some three hours was done as the result of my "Virtual Worlds" workshop at Cambridge University Moving Image Studio, UK, November 1999. The concept was based on the workshop participating actress Helen McGregor's idea and improvisation script of an extraterrestrial visit in the avatar world. After the performance, the characters, the selfish-gene-free aliens from Simuc, left behind them the Ami turf and socialised it for the use of all community. Currently, the turf has become a place for a humorous cult. The visit has also been written about in the Dreamscape newspapers.

Image 6
Sketches of the European cultural history based avatar world ECHORA (the map by Sini Sopo, avatars by Christer Nuutinen, image compositions by Paula Junttila). ECHORA exists so far as sketches and an initial concept and content script created at my Avatar World Design workshop at Medialab of Helsinki University of Art and Design, January-May 1999. The participants started with the following goals: 1) concentrating on fulfilling emotional needs man has for other identities in a community, 2) creating new ethics by constructing a social context that does not carry with it the real world prejudices and stereotypes, and 3) aiming at exceptionality in content and depth in comparison to existing avatar worlds. Please visit the web site and take a look at the beautiful avatar world design principles that the participants created, as specifying to themselves the meaning of Pan-European Community, Consistency with Intensity, Diversity to Expand Community, Compatibility and Flexibility to Multiply Possibilities, Rhythm, Ethics and Expansion Beyond Computer Screen.


Aristotle (1967, trans. Pentti Saarikoski). Runousoppi (Poetics). Otava.
Baktin, Mihail (1995, trans. Tapani Laine & Paula Nieminen). Francois Rabelais: Keskiajan ja renessanssin nauru (Francois Rabelais: The Laughter of Medieaval and Renaissance). Kustannus Oy Taifuuni.
Baktin, Mihail (1979). Kirjallisuuden ja estetiikan ongelmia (Problems of Literature and Aesthetics). Translation in Salervo (1984).
Emigh, John (1996). Masked Performance: The Play of Self and Other in Ritual and Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Press.
Laurel, Brenda (1993). Computers as Theatre. Addison-Wesley.
Murray, Janet H. (1997). Hamlet on the Holodeck - The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. The MIT Press.
Rudlin, John (1994). Commedia dell'Arte: An Actor's Handbook. Routledge. rb> Salervo, Esko (1984). Commedia dell'Arte. Unpublished, available (in Finnish) from the Finnish Central Library of Theatre & Dance, Helsinki.
Shakespeare, William (1982). The Illustrated Stratford Shakespeare - All 37 Plays, All 160 Sonnets. Chancellor Press.
Tuomola, Mika (1999). Drama in the Digital Domain: Commedia dell'Arte, Characterisation, Collaboration and Computers. Article for Digital Creativity Journal, Volume 10, Number 3. Swets and Zeitlinger.
Turkle, Sherry (1997). Life On the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Touchstone.


To all the avatar workshops' co-tutors and especially participants, whose work I was able to inspire and am recording here only a little. To all my co-workers at Malmš University Arts and Communication Department and at the Interactive Institute, especially Maureen Thomas and John Wentworth, who in just a year have contributed in incalculable ways. To Jotaarkka Pennanen, who created the Monster, Esko Salervo, Sami "Katkarapu" Kuvaja, Heikki Leskinen, who still bears my disorganisation, and Minna Tarkka and Timo Honkela at Medialab of Helsinki University of Art and Design.


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