Online Avatars May Be Part of Our Developmental DNA

04/24/2015 12:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

Joseph Campbell, the American scholar best known for his work in comparative mythology, The Hero With a Thousand Faces wrote, "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Mythology has been the expressive medium for human rites of passage since time immemorial, and archetypal journeys set forth in mythology continue to perform a vital function in modern society as they transform into characters and storylines that resonate in contemporary life. They have paved the way for the creation of modern day heroes found on the big screen to online personas called avatars.

Avatar is a term used in Hinduism for a material manifestation of a deity. The term has been applied to post-World War II comic heroes like "Superman" and "Wonder Woman" whose god-like powers enable them to battle evil doers who threaten the natural order in the coming of the Atomic Age. Their personas were drawn from familiar archetypes: Superman has been linked to Greek uber-hero Perseus, slayer of legendary monsters; Wonder Woman was modeled after an Amazonian warrior princess from Greek mythology. These superheroes or avatars were cloaked in an alternative identity of mere mortals such as a "mild-mannered" newspaper reporter Clark Kent or nurse Diana Prince who eventually went into intelligence in the early comic book series.

With the advent of the Space Age and intensifying concern for environmental sustainability, comic book heroes morphed once again in popular culture through epic movie blockbusters like George Lucas' (himself a Campbell devotee) "Star Wars" where a young farm boy, Luke Skywalker, is transformed into a heroic persona with powers of "The Force" while on an archetypal quest to save civilization in a galaxy far, far away.

Today, our children and grandchildren are using computers, tablets and smartphones in and out of school; and they are using avatars in computer gaming and interactive social media to express and challenge themselves. So when the movie Avatar came out in 2009, I began to think more deeply about the computer avatar as a mechanism for 21st century rites of passage, self-discovery and personal growth in the modern age.

In computing, the concept of the avatar has become associated with a graphic representation of the user that resides and self-actualizes in a three-dimensional form through games or in a two-dimensional form as an icon in chat rooms, Internet forums and other online communities. In many instances his or her avatar provides a young person with an alter ego that releases him or her to travel outside the boundaries of personal inhibition and "take a chance" that normally would seem beyond reach. "New research suggests that far from disengaging young people from real life, use of avatars in virtual worlds can provide unique environments that can help them learn and negotiate new situations," according to the Economic and Social Research Council in the UK. The ESRC developed 3D 'Virtual Worlds' where young people interacted using avatars, which enabled them to develop organizational and cognitive skills that are used in real world settings. The project's lead researcher, Professor Victor Lally observed, "When appropriately configured, this virtual environment can offer safe spaces to experience new learning opportunities."

Creating a personal avatar may actually help a student take intellectual and emotional risks that the traditional classroom experience may not offer or condone. Broadcom Foundation partners with the Computer History Museum on a new program called Broadcom Presents: Design_CODE_Build in which over one thousand underserved middle schoolers will spend a day learning to code and discover exciting careers that await them if they develop this critical 21st century skill. Coding is intimidating to many people, so one of the tools the museum's Education Programs Manager, Kate McGregor, puts into play for the students is to identify their avatar. The kids instantly tap into their uninhibited selves to create an alter-ego for the day. This exercise breaks them out of their day-to-day identity, giving them license to explore the unknown, go bravely into the world of coding where, at the end of the day, they are transformed.

Setting a young person free to go on the archetypal journey of self-discovery is essential to human growth and development. So for those who worry about the use of computer avatars by young people, I caution against throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To acquire the 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity, thinking and acting outside the box is vitally important and the use of online computer technology is part of the solution. If the family is using a resource like PRIVOiD to protect their child's personal information, use of an avatar to create an online persona should not be viewed as off limits - but creating limitless possibilities to explore new terrain.