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The word avatar is an ancient word and a sacred one. It describes the earthly manifestations of Hindu gods, or it did. When you hear the word avatar today, it's usually in reference to somebody's online digital identity.

As NPR's Ketzel Levine discovered, our avatars are more like us than we think.

KETZEL LEVINE: I'd like you to meet the diminutive Becky Glasure. She is 27 and lives with her husband and young daughter.

Ms. BECKY GLASURE: Being taken seriously has always been a problem. Maybe I just exude it. I don't know. But I feel like I'm the short person, and I have this squeaky, little Filipino voice. So nobody really wants to pay attention is how I feel.

LEVINE: Becky Glasure loves to play online games. She calls them MMO's, massively multi-player online role-playing games. When she began seven years ago with the game Everquest, her avatar was female. But all anyone noticed were her pixel breasts, and this despite her gaming expertise. Fed up, she switched digital identities.

Ms. GLASURE: And I picked up the biggest, blackest guy I could find.

LEVINE: She called him Stygion Physic. Stygion from the River Styx, Physic for healing. Translation: bad medicine.

Ms. GLASURE: When I played this big guy, everybody listened to me. Nobody argued with me. If there was a group of people standing around, nobody knows what to do, I say okay, everybody follow me. And they do. No questions asked.

LEVINE: Still, it's hard not to wonder what her choice of avatar says about Becky Glasure. Their question gets us a little late to the costume party that is online gaming, where virtual ethnographers like Tracy Spaight have been inquiring into human gaming behavior for as long as there have been online games.

Mr. TRACY SPAIGHT (Filmmaker, "Real People, Virtual Worlds"): There's a sociologist in MIT, her name is Sherry Turkle, and she described these environments as laboratories for the construction of identity, because in a virtual world, you can be anything that you want to be. You can adopt a persona that's wildly different than your real world self.

LEVINE: Tracy Spaight's own fascination with role-playing set the stage for the gallery exhibit we've now entered: "Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators," a collaboration between Spaight and portrait photographer Robbie Cooper.

Mr. ROBBIE COOPER (Photographer): I played one of these games for two days once. Scared the hell out of me. I made the decision never to play them again.

LEVINE: Because?

Mr. COOPER: I would end up just vanishing into it.

LEVINE: Cooper and Tracy Spaight traveled parts of the world asking gamers to sit for portraits and answer questions about their relationships with their avatars.

Mr. COOPER: We'd walk into Internet cafes and just kind of call out people basically.

LEVINE: The results are color-saturated photographs paired side-by-side, and there is ample repetition among them. For one, quite a number of avatars are just younger, thinner and prettier versions of their creators. Then again, just as many of them are polar opposites of their people.

Mr. COOPER: I'm looking at a picture of Jason Rowe, and next to him is his avatar, his online digital identity. And I guess the striking thing about him, the thing that really jumps out from the picture at you is his eyes.

LEVINE: Robbie Cooper's portrait of Jason Rowe does stop you dead. For what takes you aback is not just his eyes, it's the ominous ventilator strapped to his face.

Mr. JASON ROWE: My condition is called muscular dystrophy (unintelligible) Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which pretty much affects all the muscles of the body and they don't function.

LEVINE: Jason Rowe does have a little movement in his thumb, which enables him to play "Star Wars Galaxies" an average of 80 hours a week, where his steely, robot-like avatar rides Imperial speeder bikes and fights monsters; his head helmeted, his face unseen.

Mr. ROWE: My character in the game is a lot different from what you see here in real life. Pretty much gave me a window to the world.

LEVINE: In the four years since he created his avatar, this frail 32-year-old has had an unprecedented life experience. Online he is treated as an equal among his peers, not disabled, he says. Not in a wheelchair. In virtual worlds, he adds, everyone is on common ground.

Ms. CELIA PEARCE (Director, Emergent Game Group, Georgia Tech University): People do have a transformative experience through playing an avatar character.

LEVINE: Enter the cyber sociologist. I managed to catch game designer Celia Pearce just before she left for an MMO symposium in London. In her own MMO research - again, that's massively multi-player online games - this Georgia Tech prof has witnessed avatar after avatar alter its creator.

Ms. PEARCE: For instance, I have a very close friend who's in her mid-40s who started playing Everquest. She's kind of shy and extremely conscious about pleasing other people. And when she came into the game, she took the character of a necromancer.

LEVINE: In the game Everquest, I might add, a necromancer is, among other things, master commander of the dead.

Ms. PEARCE: And she began to really become much bolder and stronger and more assertive as a result of playing this character. And then she was able to carry that over into her real-life interactions.

LEVINE: Celia Pearce's friend didn't set out to overcome shyness. Jason Rowe didn't set out to overcome people's prejudice. And Becky Glasure, whose male avatar became a leader among men, doesn't mean to lose patience when friends and family don't fall in line. But stay in costume long enough, whether a general in a Civil War reenactment or a wench at a Renaissance fair, and the lines may blur between who you are and who you're pretending to be. Even the exhibit, "Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators," has a second life. The portraits have been collected in a recently released book.

Ketzel Levine, NPR news.

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