The Virtual Conscience of Avatar

Josh Larsen

“Avatar” may take place on a far-off, fictional moon, but the science-fiction blockbuster has some real-world implications for those of us who use avatars in our everyday lives. Especially, in a way, if we’re Christians.

An avatar is a high-tech alter ego. In the movie, a former Marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is sent to the moon Pandora, where a human-run mining company is having trouble with the natives – tall, blue-skinned forest dwellers who resent the destruction of their idyllic environment. To infiltrate the Na’vi, as they’re called, Sully “drives” a living, breathing body – an avatar – that has been genetically engineered to look like one of the locals. Sully gets into a computerized pod, which amounts to a full-body joystick, and his consciousness is transferred into his Na’vi counterpart.

Our avatars are a bit different. They can be videogame characters, which we operate with much cruder joysticks, or they can be the personas we project on Facebook, Twitter or personal blogs. Yes, we often use our real names, but is that really us out there on various digital moons?

For Christians, I wonder how “religious” we are when we take on these virtual guises? Some of us might become more blatantly devout – issuing prayer requests and words of blessing at a faster pace than we ever would in person. Others of us may hide our light under the proverbial bushel, fearing that some of our Facebook friends or Twitter followers might find out about our faith.

“Avatar” doesn’t directly address such situations, but it does argue for a virtual conscience to accompany a virtual reality. As Sully spends more time among the Na’vi, his empathy grows, so that exploiting them is no longer an easy, button-pushing option. It’s an extension, in a way, of the argument against superior military technology such as Predator drones, which allow soldiers to deliver death from miles away without feeling the full consequences of taking a life.

The moral dilemmas involving our social avatars are less high-stakes, of course, but the underlying question remains: When adopting a virtual guise, how can we best be true to our actual selves?

Topics: Movies