What is a virtual world? In truth, there is no single, authoritative definition. Wikipedia presents a useable start, however: “a computer-based simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars. This habitation usually is represented in the form of two or three-dimensional graphical representations of humanoids (or other graphical or text-based avatars). Some, but not all, virtual worlds allow for multiple users? (“Virtual World,” n.d.).
Not all virtual worlds have graphical interfaces. LambdaMOO, one of the most famous text-based online worlds still exists with many loyal residents (Rex, 2007). Die-hard residents of MOOs, MUSHs, and MUDs, enjoy them for a variety of reasons. In many cases, they are less taxing on computer hardware and bandwidth since they only require text transmission. They also, as aficionados insist, allow for greater literary expression and use of imagination by the reader participant.
Note that virtual worlds may include or incorporate games and game-like elements (such as keeping score), but this feature is not essential. In fact, some theorists explicitly separate virtual worlds from games, preferring to reserve the terms virtual world or virtual environment for spaces where that do not incorporate scoring or similar extrinsic motivators. The line between a game, a simulation, and a virtual world/environment can be quite blurry.
Virtual worlds also do not necessarily need to exist on the web nor do they need to involve multiple users, although these are increasingly assumed in current use of the term. Any computer-based simulated environment can be considered a virtual world,
Virtual worlds usually are modeled, albeit loosely, on the physical world. They incorporate spatial relationships and a sense of place or location. They usually involve physical restrictions (such as gravity, solidity of objects, apparent velocity, use of the visual spectrum, and so on) although they implement very simplified versions of physical laws and often feature specific instances of breaking these laws (such as the ability of avatars to fly unassisted in Second Life).
A very good introduction to virtual worlds and related environments has been created by Virtual Environments Info Group, which includes a comparison chart of many of the current, commonly used worlds (“Virtual Environments, Virtual Worlds, Social MMOGs, MUVEs, DVEs, MMOs,” 2007). There are two drawbacks to this site: it does not mention a few worlds (inevitable given the rapid expansion of the field) and that it does not cover the world-like uses made of many popular multi-player games.
Worlds not covered by the Virtual Environments Group include:
• Entropia (http://www.entropiauniverse.com/en/rich/5000.html)
As time permits, I will fill in the gaps and review new virtual worlds. Some of them are annoyingly only available for Windows XP, which hampers the process.
Multiplayer online games (MMOs) can often be used as virtual worlds apart from their game features. For instance, before Sony Online Entertainment revamped Star Wars Galaxies, many residents ignored the game’s score and progression system, focusing instead on their community and online personalities (Kohler, 2005). This further blurs the divisions between games that take place in a created reality (i.e. virtual world) and the open-ended worlds that may or may not include games.
Kohler, C. (2005, December 13). Star Wars Fans Flee Net Galaxy. Wired.
Rex, F. (2007). LambdaMOO (with LambdaMoo Map) An Introduction. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from http://www.lambdamoo.info/
Virtual Environments, Virtual Worlds, Social MMOGs, MUVEs, DVEs, MMOs. (2007). Retrieved October 30, 2007, from http://www.virtualenvironments.info/
Virtual World. (n.d.). Wikipedia Retrieved October 30, 2007, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtual_world