August 10, 2008
On Language – Avatar – NYTimes.com
I turned to F. Randall Farmer, a creator of the online multiplayer game Lucasfilm’s Habitat, for the origins of the term’s current incarnation. He and Chip Morningstar invented the game in 1986, when they also coined avatar in the “online persona” sense (though gamers had already been exposed to the word’s Sanskrit meaning with the 1985 computer role-playing game, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar.) “Chip came up with the word ‘avatar,’ ” he recounts, “because back then, pre-Internet, you had to call a number with your telephone and then set it back into the cradle. You were reaching out into this game quite literally through a silver strand. The avatar was the incarnation of a deity, the player, in the online world. We liked the idea of the puppet master controlling his puppet, but instead of using strings, he was using a telephone line.”
The new use first hit the woefully analog print media in the August 1986 issue of the computer magazine Run. Margaret Morabito wrote, “Once a human being enters Habitat, he or she takes on the visual form of an Avatar, and for all intents and purposes becomes one of these new-world beings.” Though perhaps the greater boost came in 1992 with the sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunktilious novel “Snow Crash,” where he invented his own online jargon. He called his virtual world “the Metaverse” and its digital inhabitants “avatars.” Stephenson later gave credit for the coinage to Morningstar and Farmer in the book’s paperback edition.
As for the usage in “Baby Mama,” Farmer takes a rather expansive view: “That wasn’t the original usage, but the term has really come to mean any graphic representation associated with the user, whether it’s animated or not, whether it interacts or represents the user or not. I’m just happy to see it in common use.”
Read the whole thing. It’s amazingly complete and funny.