Our Bodies, Our Selves?

Privileging our Primary Avatar

Tom Nickel
4 min readJul 8, 2023
Dezgo, text to image; prompt: representations of self

Oh, but you haven’t actually met him in the real world?

That’s what many people say when I tell them one of my closest friends, who I am in touch with almost every day, lives in Nairobi, Kenya.

They usually find it interesting at first. Then they ask the question, in an tone that’s really a statement, that suggests the fundamental unreality of our relationship.

I see this as devalueing my friendship with Waiyaki wa Hinga, diminshing its status.

I’m getting better at not going for the bait and trying to convince someone who has no experience that VR relationships can be deeply meaningful.

But I wonder — where does this resistance, the need to devalue, come from?

I think the resistance comes, in part, from the fact that we interact as avatars in VR — which I believe is precisely how we interact in the supposedly non-virtual world, as avatars, as representations of something else.

We don’t take our physical bodies into virtual reality. We move around and interact with others through a representation of ourself.

Some people like being represented by a form they are free to invent, within some constraints. Others find it strange, even off-putting.

When I suggest that our physical bodies are also avatars, most people don’t like the idea.

But when I ask, “do you believe that your body is you?’ most people say, ‘“well no, I am more than my body.”

Not everyone feels this way, but most people do not feel that their physical body is their Whole Self.

If our body does not wholly define us, then it is a representation, an avatar.

Why does this matter?

It matters to me because I believe virtual reality is an excellent medium for initating and sustaining human relationships. I have a very wide range of friends and acquaintances in VR and many of them are as deep and meaningful to me as friends and acquaintances in the physical world.

Etymology time.

The world ‘avatar’ comes from the Sanskrit, ‘avatarana,’ meaning ‘descent.’ The descent in question is the descent of Hindu deities to our world. Presumably, the deities exist in some other form in their main hang-outs, and take a substantial form to be with us.

Ten Avatars of Vishnu, public domain, source: Creazilla

Of course we humans have been using representations of ourselves to interact with others online for quite a while. Our voice, our video, and the commands we give our remote avatars can defeat distance, but our complete physical bodies cannot.

Just like avatars allowed Hindu deities to extend their range of interaction, so do our Internet stand-ins enable us to do the same.

There are other significant advantages to our VR avatars, in addition to spatial extension.

In the physical world, we categorize and make judgments about other people based on characteristics of their body, which I see as simply, “the avatar we are most used to.” Skin color, age, body size, body shape, and gender are aspects of the body the form the basis of inferences we make, often unconsciously, about the quality and desirability of other people.

It is not as easy to make such snap decisions based on a VR avatar. I believe this is one of several reasons that there is considerably more variety in my VR relationships than there is in my non-virtual ones.

I have spent time with people on multiple VR apps, or platforms. My friends almost invariably have different avatars on different platforms. It takes some getting used to.

I think the experience of interacting with the same people in different avatar forms helps us grasp the real meaning of self representation. It’s harder to see our physical bodies as avatars until we have had significant relationships with other people primarly through a digital representation.

The word ‘digital’ points to anh apparent difference between VR avatars and our flesh-and-blood form.

But are they really so different?

When we dig down deeply into our flesh and blood, there’s no flesh and blood. There’s no ‘there’ there — just strange waves existing probablistically in certain locations. Some quatum physicists say thinhgs like, “at the bottom, it’s just information.”

The story we call our Self finds a home in that information for a period of time.

Maybe we are not that different from the Hindu deities that gave avatars their name.

Image by David Denton

Tom writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about. He maintains a daily practice of meditation and serves as a Session Leader for Tripp.

He holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos