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Avatars, part I of III: Caricature

This is the first in a three-part series of journal entries about my quest to create the perfect avatar. It will not be a perfect or academic analysis. In fact, it may be the least formal of the entries at Infinite Lives, simply because it treads some personal ground. In part I, we’ll examine what makes my own face distinctive. Then, and for the next three days, we’ll take a look at my subsequent attempts at avatar creation, gauging how they have succeeded or failed. The final piece will appear here this Friday.

During the NXE beta, someone sent a message to my Xbox. I didn’t recognize the handle, but he apparently knew me. “Your avatar looks so much like you!” he wrote. I frowned. “I hate my avatar,” I wrote back curtly. Then I clarified: “The hair is all wrong.”

He wrote back, confessing he hated his own NXE avatar. You know, the hair.

Later, at a Thanksgiving dinner among friends, I complimented someone on his NXE avatar. “I liked mine,” he agreed. “But yours was incredible.”

Was it? I wondered aloud. “I haven’t worn my hair that way in a year,” I reminded him. He seemed really startled, slowly realizing that I was right. I do not have short, shaggy hair. Not anymore.

The art of avatar creation is, at times, the same as the art of caricature. It could be said, too, that caricature is the equivalent and perfect polar opposite of vanity, that willful misrepresentation of yourself as someone more attractive than you really are (see also: Myspace angles). Caricature is here defined as not only an exaggeration, but as a “grotesque imitation or misrepresentation.” And because caricature is a deliberate misrepresentation, in a perfect parallel with the art of vanity, it willfully contradicts reality. Your identity on the Internet, as in the workplace and in virtual worlds, is probably a work of willful caricature.

This is a little bit uncomfortable for me, but for the purposes of objectivity, here is a neutral photograph of my face today, straight-on and with very little makeup. I’m giving you a little Mona Lisa smile, too, since emotiveness would necessitate constriction of my facial muscles: this is to say, smiling broadly would actually change the shape of my face.

So here is my fat, unapologetic face. I know this is uncomfortable, but examine it.

I have suspiciously beady eyes. They are framed with glasses (an accessory since third grade) and a full eyebrow, with a sharply defined arch, that sits hereditarily low on the browbone (I call that “80s brow,” and I was mocked incessantly for them in daycare). I have an arguably smallish mouth with a much fuller lower lip. I hate my nose. It is small, with a peculiarly broad bridge, so that it forms a perfect triangle—like what a scarecrow or a Tarutaru might wear on its face. In profile, my nose also has a Roman bridge, so that it becomes almost beaklike despite its flatness. My facial features are all pushed toward the center of my face, so that I have a fivehead—which I attempted, in childhood, to conceal with bangs—and a generous chin, whose size was only pointed out to me during my freshman year of college. I have a squared-off jaw: that, a friend pointed out to me in junior high. In this photo, you cannot see that my two front teeth are at least twice the size of my other teeth. That’s right—I have bunny teeth. Braces in junior high were meant to correct my overbite, albeit with dubious results.

Here is something that might eventually become important: In high school drama competitions, the judges used to write in the margins of their critique ballots, “long hair glasses.” It was shorthand so that they could better remember me minutes later when they would score all the teenaged competitors against one another. In response, I cut my hair short, “so they can see my face better,” I explained to my weeping mother. Genuinely, though, I had my hair shorn so my appearance could become distinctive. I wore my hair short for ten years. Now it is long again: laziness. Recently, I gave myself bangs. Whoops.

If vanity is only superficial insecurity, it follows that my intimate knowledge of my own face is culled from ungentle remarks from childhood friends. I defy you to know your own face so well without having first been a nerd.

Xbox 360: NXE avatar

Here is my NXE avatar. After a truly weak attempt at giving myself long hair, I elected to use a caricature version of my hair from, say, a year in the past. I have already misrepresented myself.

But game avatars trade on our sense of vanity to compensate for the innate grotesqueness of caricature: this avatar is, in fact, only one slider-notch shy of the fattest an Xbox caricature can become. Incredible.

Except for the deliberate discrepancy in hairstyle, which does feel disingenuous, I am pretty much reconciled with this avatar. After all, NXE let me create a character with beady eyes, glasses (my most salient characteristic!), a squared jaw, a beaklike schnozz, and dark, arched eyebrows. There was even a preset, thin-lipped mouth with bunny teeth, so I totally lucked out there.

But on the whole, I’m not sure this avatar is a success. If every hairstyle, or every notch on the slider, feels like a lie, I will never be completely comfortable in my decision to represent myself this way.

Nintendo Wii: Mii avatar

This is my original Mii (and, uh, sorry about my CRT’s moiré effect). It’s hard for me to discuss it in a perfectly objective way because, in 2006, that hair was so totally accurate. This Mii is essentially a comfortable old shoe.

The Mii creator omits necks, so for a semi- neckless wonder like me, my Mii is fine, but for you with swanlike necks, the Mii will never capture your body’s distinctive sort of grace.

The Nintendo Wii’s avatar creator is unique to most avatar creation software in that it allows you to ‘place’ the facial features. Given this, I have moved my nose to the center of my face, and for proportion, I moved the eyes as close to the nose as I could without making them weirdly convergent. The chinniness doesn’t quite overstep into Evil Dead territory. All in all, this is a pretty good caricature, I think.

But I don’t mean ‘caricature’ in its truest sense, because my facial features have been pleasantly transformed into something more endearing and kawaii. Since the Wii’s avatar creation tool goes well beyond any mere Potato-head software, it has more potential for caricature, but in a way that also seems to account for—ah!—human vanity.

With this point made, I will let you in on another little secret: My sliders are set toward what is very nearly the shortest and stumpiest a Mii avatar can be. But I tweaked and pinched at those sliders for a very long time. Because of that seemingly more refined control of height and girth, this avatar feels, to me, more sincere. Like less of a lie.

And therein lies the fib! For Mii avatars can convey utter slimness, but they are incapable of conveying fatness. The Mii character itself aesthetically stresses that by which we define ourselves—the human face—and deemphasizes the body. So the face can be caricatured, but the body cannot. And where vanity is involved, we want the distortion of true caricature to be tempered by a more encouraging conceit. The Mii avatar, it would seem, accomplishes both.

90s avatars

Here is my Shadow of Yserbius avatar from ImagiNation (or, as it was known in its earliest days, The Sierra Network). Because Shadow of Yserbius is an MMORPG from 1992, its character creation software is very limited. So if you don’t use a fantastical character default, you might as well go for broke, right? I did.

Scott Sharkey loves this avatar so much, he created a City of Heroes avatar based on her. (Incidentally, other playable avatars of Sharkey’s include Inside-Out Girl. Yikes.)

I include this avatar simply because its facelessness, its distinct lack of character, is kind of what does it for me. Its lack of identity makes it something of a counterargument to “caricature” and “vanity” both—it is a grotesque misrepresentation of nothing at all, but in the absolute extreme.

Next to a an actual INN avatar (here’s mine!), the Shadow of Yserbius avatar is comparatively distinctive, though. It makes my online character into a memorable icon, and isn’t that what avatars are really supposed to do? In contrast, my pigtailed pixel-portrait conveys little about me—except, I suppose, my apparent inability to feel. In short, the faceless avatar is inexplicably able to convey what the other cannot: any personality whatsoever.

And that’s fine. But I want my avatar to do more than just ‘have personality’ and ‘not wear a shirt.’ I need an avatar that is both recognizable and relatable, creating a virtual someone with whom other citizens or players will want to engage. I want to carefully simplify my own visage into a stark, memorable icon.

Tomorrow Next month, we’ll look at avatar creation through the lens of cartooning in Avatars, part II of III.

8 responses to “Avatars, part I of III: Caricature” »

  1. pauljeremiah says:

    excellent post jenn, really enjoyed reading that,

    but “So here is my fat, unapologetic face” is a bit extreme, you’re a very beautiful woman jenn.

  2. mark says:

    Took me a while to come across this new-fangled site of yours Jenn. I missed reading these kind of posts from you.

  3. Larry Madill says:

    This is an interesting topic, and a good post. I’d like to read your take on HOME as well if you could steal some time on a PS3.

    Little hard on yourself, though, Jenn. You’ve got a great face.

  4. chryslerlebaron says:

    Cool article. Does it say something about me that I always try to make the most grotesque avatar possible?

  5. librarian says:

    Oh, all right, I will post part II after all. But if it gets boring, here are all the avatars at once. Once I get home (home is where the PS3 is), I’ll talk about HOME.

  6. Larry Madill says:

    Ah, the key to motivate Jenn to blog more often. Pester with comments!

  7. Beastman says:

    I miss hearing you on Retronauts, Ms. Frank. Maybe you can make a special guest appearance soon? Hmm?

  8. JohnM says:

    I love this post. I’ve often wondered about others’ feelings on avatar creation. Looking forward to the next installment.

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