Boobs, Muscles & Fairy Wings: Everything I Know About How Humans Design Their Avatar Selves

It was a combination of early career anxiety and actual startup struggles which combined to make my years working on Second Life personally stressful. I remember my parents visiting our office and casting a sideways glance at the bottles of Mylanta and hard alcohol sitting side by side on my desk, like the cartoon angel and devil characters sitting on the shoulders of an 80s movie character wrestling with his conscience. With some hindsight perspective though, the tremendous benefits of the experience became clear – I had the opportunity to work on a thoughtful, innovative product with an amazing technical team and together we produced what is ultimately an ongoing, profitable company (even if it failed to achieve its full potential).

Besides the meta-learnings about how startups function, there were a [NeesonVoice] very particular set of skills [/NeesonVoice] that I took away from my years at Linden Lab. The other day a young entrepreneur – she was in diapers when we started Second Life – asked me about avatars and specifically the design decisions we made about how people could represent themselves in our virtual world. It was so much fun reminiscing about what we observed that I wanted to document some stuff here. Caveats: this was 2001-2003 for me so some memories might be hazy or inaccurate, and although I’m writing this post, I’m not taking “credit” for the underlying work done. Early SL had an amazing founder, and superior multidisciplinary team – everything here is at best “we” and mostly “they,” in terms of building this stuff. Ok, here we go….

A Very Brief Overview of the Original SL Avatar System


Your basic form had to be humanoid but within that you could tune a ton of parameters using slider bars. Textures could be applied to your body as clothing, skins, and so on. You also had multiple “attach points” perhaps best understood as the geometric points on your head, shoulders, chest, groin, and so on, to which you could stick other objects. So if, for example, you wanted to wear a Mickey Mouse costume, you would design your avatar however you wanted, but the costume itself would be an outfit that you applied to these attach points.

People Don’t Like Getting Dressed In Public

Since there wasn’t a way to be truly “offline” in Second Life (it was a fully immersive streamed world), we needed a way to convey to people what occurred while they were modifying their avatar. Users were *very* nervous about the idea of changing in public and what any onlookers might see – their virtual selves in a stage of disrobing? what if they made a mistake or were shown changing from one self to another, experimenting with gender, sexuality, etc? Since it wasn’t just about your clothing – your entire form was malleable – the act of “dressing” was, in some ways, even more vulnerable than it might be on the streets of San Francisco, despite the “virtual” nature of the world. But how to convey privacy to new users?

We tried a variety of mechanisms, some more successful than others. The team eventually settled on a very literal representation: the changing room/privacy screen. A user altering their avatar was surrounded by a box so no one could see what they were doing, but this also made it hard to ask your friends “what do you think of this outfit,” so we ended up with a hybrid privacy mode and “dressing pose” (your avatar standing still with its arms and legs open).

And everyone took off all their clothes at some point to see what happened. Spoiler: no genitals. But creative users found ways to use the attach points to, uh, fix that. Sigh.

[thanks to Cory and James for the refreshers on this one]

The “Who Am I” Decision Tree


In a world where you can “be” anyone, what do you want to look like? Some people had a fixed appearance and rarely deviated, while others tried on new personas daily. New users, especially those unfamiliar with avatar construction from RPGs, usually went down this decision tree:

  1. Photo Realistic Like My Real Self or Not?
  2. If Photo Realistic, How Close Can I Get
  3. If Not Photo Realistic, Then Aspirational, Exploratory or Extreme?

Aspirational: Tall with big boobs and/or muscles

Exploratory: Mainstream human but not like yourself – exploring different genders, ages and body types (fat, thin)

Extreme: What happens if I just drag the sliders to random extremes and run around the world like that?


Teens Like Exploring Identities

You know who really liked exploring identities in anonymity? Teens! We eventually had to create a Teen Grid, a version of Second Life only open to 13-17 year old with their parents’ permission. I was struck about their malleability of identity, which at first surprised me but made perfect sense as read about their IRL developmental stage. Caught between “kid” and “adult,” wanting to be in both worlds at once. Expanding beyond your immediate social circle and geography. Finding connections and differences. Understanding your sexuality for the first time. Now imagine being able to put this all on and off like outfits…..

Can’t Be Too Big or Too Small

We put a limit on avatar height because of the prisoner’s dilemma that immediately everyone would want to be a huge dragon. Our height minimum was originally about just making sure you were generally visible in the world – no Ant-Man in Second Life. And then we increased the height minimum to more of a small adult size. Why? To try and prevent kiddie porn role play. Ugh, right? I’m serious though. If you let people make child avatars there’s gonna be some disgusting shit. It was against our Terms of Service obviously (even though there are/were some legal grey area around pornography that doesn’t depict actual people), but we decided it should not even be possible to do. So we had to raise the minimum height. [Note – this is the way I remember it *but* I found so other links which suggest child avatars were allows, but just heavily ToS’ed in terms of what they were allowed to do – link. Either way, age play had its issues and avatar height was part of it. Update: Cory, Linden’s founding CTO, reminded me that it was laws in Germany which helped guide some of our decisions here]

Don’t Stand So Close to Me

Nick Yee did a ton of work on avatar interactions in virtual environments, discovering that we tend to carry over the same social space etiquette – standing our avatars the same distance from each other that we would stand from a person IRL. Moving closer to “hear” someone, even if there was no spatial audio and their talking is actually text chat. And so on. We were amazed that so many folks built virtual toilets in their virtual houses.

Want Free Shit? Present as Female

This should probably also read “want harassment?” given some of the history with misogyny in certain gaming communities, but I’ll focus on a different aspect of gender roles. I’ll go back to Nick Yee here and reference his answer – female avatars are more likely to get assistance and free stuff from other in-game players. We saw this in Second Life as well. Despite there being no way to know the person behind the avatar, different gendered avatars get treated differently. Wild, right?

When Looks Are Just 1s and 0s, You Can Study Lots of Cool Stuff

During my years at Second Life we just didn’t have enough people in the system to do really interesting research on avatars, although later there was quite a bit of study. Since avatar construction is really just a set of coordinates, it’s possible to calculate a ton of things quite trivially: what does the “average” avatar look like over time? What do avatars from different user geos look like – ie do Brazilians create different avatars than Americans than Japanese? In some ways this would be like image recognition analysis of our profile photos on Facebook over time – how do we choose to represent ourselves and are there general trends in the population which can be extracted?

Like I said, this is just what I remember from my Second Life years. I’m sure there are lots of blog posts floating out there which go into greater depth about how the avatar system changed over time and resulting learnings. If you see anything, just tweet at me, and I’ll try to add the links here.


Oh, and I represented myself as a middle-aged female avatar for much of my Second Life experience to see how people would react to that persona.