Review of Communication Research

COMMUNICATION TECHNOLOGY                                                                                                

Title & Authors

Avatars and Computer-Mediated Communication: A Review of the Definitions, Uses, and Effects of Digital Representations on Communication

Kristine L. Nowak (University of Connecticut, USA) and Jesse Fox (The Ohio State University, USA)

Highlights

• The term “avatar” is not consistently defined either operationally or conceptually by researchers in Communication.

• In computer-mediated communication, scholars agree that avatars are digital representations of the user in a digital environment.

The avatar influences perception and attribution of sources and messages in a digital environment.

• The computers as social actors framework and the model of social influence in digital environments lend insight into avatars.

• Perceptions of avatar agency and social potential (e.g., anthropomorphism and behavioral realism) have important implications for digital interactions.

• Avatar characteristics afforded by an interface can augment or limit people’s ability to self-present and engage in the digital environment.

• Scholars can use avatars in research to facilitate experimental control and the investigation of complex communication processes and theories.

Abstract

Avatars are growing in popularity and present in many interfaces used for computer-mediated communication including social media, ecommerce, and educational applications. Communication researchers have been investigating avatars for over twenty years, and an examination of this literature reveals similarities but also notable discrepancies in conceptual definitions. The goal of this chapter is to provide a general overview of current debates, methodological approaches, and trends in findings. Our review synthesizes previous research in four areas. First, we examine how scholars have conceptualized the term “avatar,” identify similarities and differences across these definitions, and recommend that scholars use the term consistently. Next, we review theoretical perspectives relevant to avatar perception (e.g., the computers as social actors framework). Then, we examine avatar characteristics that communicators use to discern the humanity and social potential of an avatar (anthropomorphism, form realism, behavioral realism, and perceived agency) and discuss implications for attributions and communication outcomes. We also review findings on the social categorization of avatars, such as when people apply categories like sex, gender, race, and ethnicity to their evaluations of digital representations. Finally, we examine research on avatar selection and design relevant to communication outcomes. Here, we review both motivations in CMC contexts (such as self-presentation and identity expression) and potential effects (e.g., persuasion). We conclude with a discussion of future directions for avatar research and propose that communication researchers consider avatars not just as a topic of study, but also as a tool for testing theories and understanding critical elements of human communication. Avatar-mediated environments provide researchers with a number of advantageous technological affordances that can enable manipulations that may be difficult or inadvisable to execute in natural environments. We conclude by discussing the use of avatar research to extend communication theory and our understanding of communication processes.

Content

Introduction

The Emergence and Definition of Avatars in Communication Research

Similarities in Conceptualization

Differences in Conceptualization

Conceptualizing Avatar for Future Research

Avatar Perception: Processing Digital Bodies and People

Perceptions of Avatars: Humanity, Agency, and Social Potential

Anthropomorphism

Realism

The uncanny valley

Social Categorization of Avatars

Sex and gender

Race and ethnicity

Similarity and homophily

Avatar Selection as Self-Representation

Avatars as identity expression

Identity exploration and deception

Effects of avatar embodiment

Future Directions: Using Avatars to Study Human Communication

Refining Research on Avatars

Topics for Future Directions for Avatar Research

Ethical Considerations

Conclusion

References

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Avatars and Computer-Mediated Communication: A Review of the Definitions, Uses, and Effects of Digital Representations on Communication

Kristine L. Nowak and Jesse Fox

Keywords: Avatars; Perception; Digital environments; Video games; Computer-mediated communication; Digital representations; Social actors; Anthropomorphism; Human-computer interaction;

 

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How to cite

Nowak, K. L., & Fox, J. (2018). Avatars and Computer-Mediated Communication: A Review of the Definitions, Uses, and Effects of Digital Representations on Communication. Review of Communication Research, 6, Preprint, accepted manuscript. doi:10.12840/issn.2255-4165.2018.06.01.015

Keywords

Avatars, Perception, Digital environments, Video games, Computer-mediated communication, Digital representations, Social actors, Anthropomorphism, Human-computer interaction .

Repositories

Permanent repositories where you will find this article when officially published:

Internet Archive (Community Texts) @ https://archive.org/details/texts

Academia.edu @ http://independent.academia.edu/ReviewofCommunicationResearch

Social Science Open Access Repository @ http://www.ssoar.info/en/home.html

About the Author

Authors biographical information:

Personal website: Kristine L. Nowak

Personal website: Jesse Fox

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