No, Maxine, an Avatar isn’t Reincarnation

When Maxine goes to Vyrva’s to check out DeepArcher, she comments that “in the Hindu religion avatar means an incarnation.  So I keep wondering–when you pass from this side of the screen over into virtual reality, is that like dying and being reincarnated, see what I’m saying?”

I did see what she was saying, and Mother Box pinged in my head, because I disagreed.  I was pretty sure she was leaving out an important detail, namely, that an avatar is specifically an incarnation of a god.  Wikipedia suggests that a more accurate translation of the word “avatar” would be “manifestation.”  Wikipedia also notes that an avatar is the result when a deity deliberately descends to Earth from the higher divine planes.  The gamer deliberately descends onto the lower plane of the game using the avatar, interacts with the world through their avatar.  This is the user as deity, not a mortal dying and being reincarnated in the machine.  If we want to talk about that topic, I’d rather turn to one of my favorite movies, Tron, which I’ll find any excuse to reference here throughout the semester (and if Mother Box up there intrigues you, oh boy, I’ll have a whole lot more about Jack Kirby’s Fourth World at a later date).

Y’see, for the uninitiated, in Tron, programmer Kevin Flynn is shot with an experimental laser that digitizes him and puts him in a beautifully realized world inside the computer (that’s him in the blue and gray in that third pic).  Did Flynn die to be reincarnated in the computer?  His material body disappeared from the physical realm and put him in the Encom system, and he later sacrifices his program body to return to his physical one.

This actually still reminds me of the Hindu concept of avatar, because humans are known as “Users” on the other side of the screen in the world of Tron.  They’re revered, even worshiped, with religious fervor (one of the evil guard-programs calls a detainee “another religious nut” when he expresses his concern to get back to his User, and the I/O Tower [click “realized” above] is an analogue for a temple where programs communicate with their Users).  And when Flynn enters the system, he finds himself endowed with god-like power to manipulate things, like redirecting a high-power energy beam, absorbing the color of a different program, and reviving a dead, discarded vehicle.

The player is bound to a game’s rules, but also capable of breaking them (gaming an RPG’s system to become unstoppable, Halo 2’s famous glitching).  Does this not make the player like unto a god incarnate?  You don’t need to leave your human body to be reborn in the digital planes, and there is no transference of the soul.  I may disagree with Maxine on the whole, but the observation is immensely intriguing.

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One Response to No, Maxine, an Avatar isn’t Reincarnation

  1. danwillisdan says:

    You raise some interesting points, but it seems like these “manifestation” situations you’re describing are only applicable to the world of games. Justin and Lucas seem very reluctant to classify DeepArcher as a game, so maybe (in spite of its etymological inaccuracy), Pynchon had something to say by calling the avatars of DeepArcher reincarnations. It seems like DeepArcher is not a massively constrained, goal-oriented simulacrum of the world, but an entire world unto itself, which contains all the chaos and agency of the real world but expresses it in different ways. I think you did tap into something interesting through the Tron comparison, though. Are users on DeepArcher sacrificing their physical selves for their avatars (or vice versa) just as Flynn does, ‘growing crippled in the service of that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry’?


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