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Dialogue on Defining Virtual Worlds

As you may recall, back in May I asked all our blog readers to take part in the first round of a three round dialogue about what is a virtual world.  The questions of round 1 were used to elicit answers that subsequently structured the activities of round 2, which occurred during our sponsored international workshop on virtual worlds.

At this workshop, participants gathered into groups and were asked to visually depict certain terms in virtual worlds studies for how they relate to each other.  The terms they had to work with were: virtual world, virtual reality, virtual environment, MMORPG, MUVE, MUD, and 3D web/internet. These terms were used in this task because they were most often chosen by those who participated in round 1 of the dialogue.

The groups were relatively interdisciplinary, which had both its drawbacks and benefits. The full extent of the groups’ dynamics will provide a useful data source for analyzing how people communicate across these differences. Such an analysis will hopefully be forthcoming. What I can present now, and what we can talk about for the third (but hopefully not the last) round of this dialogue, are the visual representations of how these terms relate to each other. I have gathered said representations into a slideshow embedded below.

Now, to make this another round of the dialogue, I am going to say what I see in these visual representations, and I invite you to comment upon my analysis.

In analyzing the discussions from round 1 and visual representations from round 2, what I focused on where the characteristics being used to categorize new media technologies as being representative of virtual world technologies, or not being thereby representative.  These characteristics elide over distinctions we may make between social worlds, gaming worlds and hybrid worlds.   The analysis focuses on how people used these characteristics as boundary requirements: that is, what elements of the technology have to be present in order for that technology to be classifiable as virtual worlds technology.  In looking for such boundary requirements, I could see 13 categories emerge; however, only3 of them are unique from other new media technologies.

As much as possible, I retained the participants’ words to describe these boundary requirements.  The 13 categories, and the 3 unique ones (indicated in bold), are :

  • Depiction: dimensional category, from pure text to pure visual, from 2D to some variation on 3D, with potential for multimodality
  • Space: sense of space, of a place that is “there”
  • Analogic: metaphorical, world-like, comparisons based on human culture, society, geography and physical appearance, physics
  • Non-Physical: artificial, simulated, computer generated, non-actual, make-believe
  • Avatars: representations of people, users
  • Agency: autonomy, the ability to roam
  • Together: social interaction, sharing, multiple users, community, friends, being together, non-human actors, inhabited
  • Persistent: ongoing
  • Computer-mediated: computer networks, cyber-network, online, technology
  • Immersiveness: felt senses and actions, sense being there, presence, perception
  • Interaction: play, gaming, competition, collaboration,
  • Communication: dimensional category, from asynchronous to synchronous, focusing on ability to be communicative
  • Prescribed: dimensional category, considering the extent to which goals, progress, objective, narrative are structured before use

These categories of boundary requirements emerged out of the discussions and visual representations.  They may not represent all the necessary and sufficient conditions people have for defining what is a virtual world, but they do appear to reflect the general consensus of those definings in that: the three bolded entries are particular characteristics of virtual world technologies that help to separate them from other new media technologies, especially those other technologies that occur via the internet.  The remaining 10 boundary requirements can be found in other internet technologies; but, it is in their occurring with the 3 unique boundary requirements that the categorization of what makes an internet technology a virtual worlds technology truly crystallizes.

To that end, a definition that could be said to emerge from this collection of boundary requirements may read as follows:

“A depiction of a prescribed, nonphysical, persistent, computer-mediated, analogic space that becomes a place for users to immerse themselves via avatars within it while coming together to interact and communicate.”

As I have mentioned, this is my take on the discussions and representations; as such, it is only through further discussion that we can come to some agreement as to the viability of these results.  To that end, I would ask you to consider the following questions:

  1. To what extent do you agree/disagree on the categories of boundary requirements discussed in this analysis?  What leads you to your agreements/disagreements?
  2. Does defining what is/is not a virtual world help the future of virtual worlds, business and/or research?  What leads you to say so?
  3. Does defining what is/is not a virtual world hinder the future of virtual worlds, business and/or research?  What leads you to say so?

I look forward to any further discussion on this topic.  Additionally, if anyone has any suggestions for future work that can be done with this data or on this topic in general, please let us know.

Posted in Blog, Workshops and Seminars.

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Continuing the Discussion

  1. Attentional Capital in Online Gaming : The Currency of Survival « Gaming and Gold linked to this post on 2010/08/28

    [...] The Virtual Worlds Research Project {VWRP} has conducted extensive studies and workshops on defining virtual worlds – three main prominent characteristics of which are depiction, space and analogic – for more please refer their report published and freely available. [...]

  2. Hybrid virtual worlds « A Stranger in a Familiar Land linked to this post on 2011/02/17

    [...] has become a research trajectory I have been on since.  I have written about the idea of how researchers make sense of this new media product through the jargon, typologies, labels, definitions, [...]

  3. The Multiplicity of Virtual Worlds | Playing, With Research linked to this post on 2013/02/27

    [...] results of this dialogue can be found at the Virtual Worlds Research Group’s [...]

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