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Dialogue about Defining Virtual Worlds — Round 1

In preparation for a group activity I shall be leading at the international workshop this June, I would like us to begin online with a discussion about what is a virtual world.  The purpose of this discussion is to understand how we make sense of the technologies we are studying under the aegis of “virtual worlds”.  To participate in this online discussion, you do not have to be a participant of the international workshop – in fact, I encourage anyone who cannot be there to lend their thoughts here.

To participate in this online dialogue, you must answer three questions.  Find the questions at this page: and thanks for contributing!

Please give your comments to the post linked above, and not to this post.  This post is only to direct you to the main one.

Posted in Blog, Workshops and Seminars.

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4 Responses

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  1. Mikala Hansbøl says

    Thanks for posting these interesting questions, CarrieLynn. I would start differently though. I would start by thinking about the terms “virtual” and “world”, and how they might be related (or not). When reading social anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, the term virtual has had many meanings throughout time. When reading Bruno Latour, the term has at least eight today. Both Strathern and Latour discuss what is a world and how is it made up. They both emphasize that in order to understand world-makings, we should make efforts to keep things flat – that is at line – to begin with. I personally have become fond of Latour’s concept of “phantom publics”. As I understand this concept, it is a way to emphasize that any world production also involves construction work, and in that sense it is a phantom public. Or as Latour says in another place. The world is really constructed. So, if we see the world like this, then the world will always be a virtual world. That is a really constructed (partially visible and invisible) world. However, what it involves is uncertain as real constructions (and thus also what is visible or not) are always on the move (though not freely).

    The problem with the concept of “virtualt worlds” as I see it (in the way that it is often being used) is that it anticipates that this has to do with particular places/spaces most often imagined to be located on the Internet.

    However, any study of something carrying the label of being a virtual world, necessarily involves being entangled with computers, mice, furniture, physical buildings, people etc. Virtual worlds are never their own contexts of activity.

    So to answer your questions:
    1) What definition of “virtual worlds” do you use to make sense of these technologies?
    This depends of course of which technology concept one engages with. From an entanglement approach (my work is inspired by Science and Technology Studies/Actor-Network-Theory) what a virtual world is and how it be-comes (the latter being central) must be answered empirically.

    2) How are these terms related to one another: virtual world, virtual environment, virtual reality and virtual community?

    I do not believe there is one answer to this question. However, they all (as Strathern notes) point to their virtues as being virtual (whatever that means), and they also all point to special places where one could go, places – not to mention realities – one could join, engage with and commit to.

    3) Consider the list of terms supplied below. These terms have been pulled from research literature because in some way they refer to the technologies we label “virtual worlds”. What do you consider to be the 7-10 main terms in this field that relate to virtual worlds? What leads you to say this?

    I read this question as coming from a particular engagement with virtual worlds, because the virtual world which I am currently researching does not necessarily involve and engage with these terms. In order to understand what is summoned under this increasingly complicated conceptual umbrella of “virtual worlds”, I believe that we need to tend to the variations of enactments of these, and this also means tending to the shifting vocabulary and practices engaging variations of so-called virtual worlds. For example, while something may be called a virtual world by the developers, it may just be referred to as Club Pinguin by users. While both may in a sense refer to Club Pinguin / a virtual world, they do not belong to and enroll Club Pinguin into the same realities.

    There is (still) a lot of redundance in literature for example within the field of e-learning research and serious games research which has become highly repetitive, and therefore also more often uninteresting and boring to read. Compared to the incredibly diverse and complicated unfoldings of so-called virtual worlds (on a daily basis), this is something which ought to alert us as researchers.

    However with regards to main terms that relate to virtual worlds, I would suggest the following 10:

    1. money – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    2. ICT – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    3. free/open – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    4. innovation – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    5. time and place – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    6. immersion – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    7. engagement – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    8. world-building – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    9. environment-building – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing
    10. sociality-building – research, business, politics, education, gaming/playing


    :-) Mikala

  2. Mikala Hansbøl says

    It should have been: main terms that many times relate to virtual worlds… A big problem is, that often these terms (maybe not money) are associated with positive outcomes. However, researching engagements with virtual worlds may also bring to the fore that terms like: breakdown, failure, loss, waist, boredom, repetition, disengagement etc. ought to be equally encounted for in research into these phenomena. I have deliberately listed ten terms, that could unfold in multiple ways, and hence also involve coexisting variations of what they may imply.

  3. CarrieLynn says

    Mikala — thank you for your answers. But could you please answer Question #3 as it is asked, as I will be using the terms selected by people for the next round of the discussion. So of that list, what would be the 7-10 terms (or more if you feel the need), that you consider are the main terms used to describe virtual worlds?

  4. Mikala Hansbøl says

    Ooh sorry, I did not read it like that. You wrote: “What do you consider to be the 7-10 main terms in this field that relate to virtual worlds? What leads you to say this?” I read the list as a source of inspiration, and I do believe that the terms I mention represent main terms related to (engagements with) virtual worlds. The terms to select of course depend on what you define as “this field”.

    You want me to select 7-10 of the terms that you list and you write: “of that list, what would be the 7-10 terms (or more if you feel the need), that you consider are the main terms used to describe virtual worlds?”

    My answer would be: “I guess it depends”. Main terms used where? By whom? To describe which virtual worlds? When? For what purposes?

    Hmm… I find those terms very technical/technology-oriented, and as you have already written, they are all main terms being used to define virtual worlds as technologies.

    Selecting 7-10 main terms out of your list of main terms is difficult to identify with for me. I think all of them qualify as possible main terms used to describe virtual worlds at different times and places, therefore I include all on your list (sorry, for maybe not understanding or behaving according to your intentions):

    • 3D web, 3D internet, virtual reality
    • synthetic world, digital world, mirror world, sim, social virtual world, gaming virtual world, metaverse
    • online game, digital game, social game, casual game
    • Multi-User Object Oriented Domain/Dungeon (MOD), Multi-User Dungeon/Domain (MUD)
    • Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online (MMO), Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online Game(MMOG), Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online Social Game (MMOSG), Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG)
    • Multi-User Virtual/Visual Environment (MUVE), Social Virtual World Environment (SVWE), Multi-User Simulated Environment (MUSE)
    • virtual environments, synthetic environments, 3D environments
    • Collaborative Virtual Environment (CVE), Immersive/Intelligent Virtual Environment (IVE), Distributed Virtual Environment(DVE)

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