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Virtual World

A virtual world is a computer-based simulated environment which may be populated by many users who can create a personal avatar, and simultaneously and independently explore the virtual world, participate in its activities and communicate with others. These avatars can be textual, two or three-dimensional graphical representations, or live video avatars with auditory and touch sensations. In general, virtual worlds allow for multiple users but single player computer games, such as Skyrim, can also be considered a type of virtual world.

The user accesses a computer-simulated world which presents perceptual stimuli to the user, who in turn can manipulate elements of the modeled world and thus experience a degree of presence. Such modeled worlds and their rules may draw from reality or fantasy worlds. Example rules are gravity, topography, locomotion, real-time actions, and communication. Communication between users can range from text, graphical icons, visual gesture, sound, and rarely, forms using touch, voice command, and balance senses.

Massively multiplayer online games depict a wide range of worlds, including those based on science fiction, the real world, super heroes, sports, horror, and historical milieus. The most common form of such games are fantasy worlds, whereas those based on the real world are relatively rare.[original research?][8] Most MMORPGs have real-time actions and communication. Players create a character who travels between buildings, towns, and worlds to carry out business or leisure activities. Communication is usually textual, but real-time voice communication is also possible. The form of communication used can substantially affect the experience of players in the game.

Virtual worlds are not limited to games but, depending on the degree of immediacy presented, can encompass computer conferencing and text-based chatrooms. Sometimes, emoticons or 'smilies' are available to show feeling or facial expression. Emoticons often have a keyboard shortcut. Edward Castronova is an economist who has argued that "synthetic worlds" is a better term for these cyberspaces, but this term has not been widely adopted.

Virtual World Concepts

Definitions for a "virtual world" include:

* a "synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers", by Mark W. Bell in 2008
* an "automated, shared, persistent environment with and through which people can interact in real time by means of a virtual self", by Richard Bartle in 2010
* a "persistent, simulated and immersive environment, facilitated by networked computers, providing multiple users with avatars and communication tools with which to act and interact in-world and in real-time.", by Carina Girvan in 2013

There is no generally accepted definition of virtual world, but they do require that the world be persistent; in other words, the world must continue to exist even after a user exits the world, and user-made changes to the world should be preserved. While the interaction with other participants is done in real-time, time consistency is not always maintained in online virtual worlds. For example, EverQuest time passes faster than real-time despite using the same calendar and time units to present game time.

As virtual world is a general term, the virtual environment supports varying degrees of play and gaming. Some uses of the term include:

* Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) games in which a large number of players interact within a virtual world. The concept of MMO has spread to other game types such as sports, real-time strategy and others. The persistence criterion is the only criterion that separates virtual worlds from video games, meaning that some MMO versions of RTS and FPS games resemble virtual worlds; Destiny is a video game that is such a pseudo virtual world. Emerging concepts include basing the terrain of such games on real satellite photos, such as those available through the Google Maps API or through a simple virtual geocaching of "easter eggs" on WikiMapia or similar mash-ups, where permitted; these concepts are virtual worlds making use of mixed reality.
* Collaborative virtual environments (CVEs) designed for collaborative work in a virtual environment.
* Massively multiplayer online real-life games (MMORLGs), also called virtual social worlds, where the user can edit and alter their avatar at will, allowing them to play a more dynamic role, or multiple roles.


A virtual economy is the emergent property of the interaction between participants in a virtual world. While the designers have a great deal of control over the economy by the encoded mechanics of trade, it is nonetheless the actions of players that define the economic conditions of a virtual world. The economy arises as a result of the choices that players make under the scarcity of real and virtual resources such as time or currency. Participants have a limited time in the virtual world, as in the real world, which they must divide between task such as collecting resources, practicing trade skills, or engaging in less productive fun play. The choices they make in their interaction with the virtual world, along with the mechanics of trade and wealth acquisition, dictate the relative values of items in the economy. The economy in virtual worlds is typically driven by in-game needs such as equipment, food, or trade goods. Virtual economies like that of Second Life, however, are almost entirely player-produced with very little link to in-game needs. While the relevance of virtual world economics to physical world economics has been questioned, it has been shown the users of virtual worlds respond to economic stimuli (such as the law of supply and demand) in the same way that people do in the physical world. In fact, there are often very direct corollaries between physical world economic decisions and virtual world economic decisions, such as the decision by prisoners of war in World War II to adopt cigarettes as currency and the adoption of Stones of Jordan as currency in Diablo II.

The value of objects in a virtual economy is usually linked to their usefulness and the difficulty of obtaining them. The investment of real world resources (time, membership fees, etc.) in acquisition of wealth in a virtual economy may contribute to the real world value of virtual objects. This real world value is made obvious by the (mostly illegal) trade of virtual items on online market sites like eBay, PlayerUp, IGE for real world money. Recent legal disputes also acknowledge the value of virtual property, even overriding the mandatory EULA which many software companies use to establish that virtual property has no value and/or that users of the virtual world have no legal claim to property therein.

Some industry analysts have moreover observed that there is a secondary industry growing behind the virtual worlds, made up by social networks, websites and other projects completely devoted to virtual worlds communities and gamers. Special websites such as GamerDNA, Koinup and others which serve as social networks for virtual worlds users are facing some crucial issues as the DataPortability of avatars across many virtual worlds and MMORPGs.

Virtual worlds offer advertisers the potential for virtual advertisements, such as the in-game advertising already found in a number of video games.


The geography of virtual worlds can vary widely because the role of geography and space is an important design component over which the developers of virtual worlds have control and may choose to alter. Virtual worlds are, at least superficially, digital instantiations of three-dimensional space. As a result, considerations of geography in virtual worlds (such as World of Warcraft) often revolve around “spatial narratives” in which players act out a nomadic hero’s journey along the lines of that present in The Odyssey. The creation of fantastic places is also a reoccurring theme in the geographic study of virtual worlds, although, perhaps counterintuitively, the heaviest users of virtual worlds often downgrade the sensory stimuli of the world’s fantastic places in order to make themselves more efficient at core tasks in the world, such as killing monsters. However, the geographic component of some worlds may only be a geographic veneer atop an otherwise nonspatial core structure. For instance, while imposing geographic constraints upon users when they quest for items, these constraints may be removed when they sell items in a geographically unconstrained auction house. In this way, virtual worlds may provide a glimpse into what the future economic geography of the physical world may be like as more and more goods become digital.


Virtual spaces can serve a variety of research and educational goals and may be useful for examining human behaviour. Offline- and virtual-world personalities differ from each other but are nevertheless significantly related which has a number of implications for self-verification, self-enhancement and other personality theories. Panic and agoraphobia have also been studied in a virtual world.

Given the large engagement, especially of young children in virtual worlds, there has been a steady growth in research studies involving the social, educational and even emotional impact of virtual worlds on children. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for example have funded research into virtual worlds including, for example, how preteens explore and share information about reproductive health.[40] A larger set of studies on children's social and political use of the virtual world has also been published in the book "Connected Play: Tweens in a Virtual World" Authored by Yasmin B. Kafai, Deborah A. Fields, and Mizuko Ito. Several other research publications now specifically address the use of virtual worlds for education.

Other research focused more on adults explores the reasons for indulging and the emotions of virtual world users. Many users seek an escape or a comfort zone in entering these virtual worlds, as well as a sense of acceptance and freedom. Virtual worlds allow users to freely explore many facets of their personalities in ways that are not easily available to them in real life. However, users may not be able to apply this new information outside of the virtual world. Thus, virtual worlds allow for users to flourish within the world and possibly become addicted to their new virtual life which may create a challenge as far as dealing with others and in emotionally surviving within their real lives. One reason for this freedom of exploration can be attributed to the anonymity that virtual worlds provide. It gives the individual the ability to be free from social norms, family pressures or expectations they may face in their personal real world lives. The avatar persona experiences an experience similar to an escape from reality like drug or alcohol usage for numbing pain or hiding behind it. The avatar no longer represents a simple tool or mechanism manipulated in cyberspace. Instead, it has become the individual’s bridge between the physical and virtual world, a conduit through which to express oneself among other social actors. The avatar becomes the person’s alter ego; the vehicle to which one utilizes to exist among others who are all seeking the same satisfaction.

While greatly facilitating ease of interaction across time and geographic boundaries, the virtual world presents an unreal environment with instant connection and gratification. Online encounters are employed as seemingly fulfilling alternatives to “live person” relationships (Toronto, 2009). When one is ashamed, insecure, lost or just looking for something different and stimulating to engage in, virtual worlds are the perfect environment for its users. A person has unlimited access to an infinite array of opportunities to fulfill every fantasy, grant every wish, or satisfy every desire. He or she can face any fear or conquer any enemy, all at the click of a mouse (Toronto, 2009). Ultimately, virtual worlds are the place to go when real life becomes overbearing or boring. While in real life individuals hesitate to communicate their true opinions, it is easier to do so online because they don’t ever have to meet the people they are talking with (Toronto, 2009). Thus, virtual worlds are basically a psychological escape.

Another area of research related to virtual worlds is the field of navigation. Specifically, this research investigates whether or not virtual environments are adequate learning tools in regards to real-world navigation. Psychologists at Saint Michael’s College found that video game experience corresponded with ability to navigate virtual environments and complete objectives; however, that experience did not correlate with an increased ability to navigate real, physical environments.[45] An extensive study at the University of Washington conducted multiple experiments involving virtual navigation. One experiment had two groups of subjects, the first of which examined maps of a virtual environment, and the second of which navigated the virtual environment. The groups of subjects then completed an objective in the virtual environment. There was little difference between the two groups’ performances, and what difference there was, it was in favor of the map-users. The test subjects, though, were generally unfamiliar with the virtual world interface, likely leading to some impaired navigation, and thus bias in the yielded analysis of the experiments. The study concluded that the interface objects made natural navigation movements impossible, and perhaps less intrusive controls for the virtual environment would reduce the effect of the impairment.

Virtual worlds and Real Life

Some virtual worlds have off-line, real world components and applications. Handipoints, for example, is a children's virtual world that tracks chores via customizable chore charts and lets children get involved in their household duties offline. They complete chores and use the website and virtual world to keep track of their progress and daily tasks. There are also online platforms such as Uniiverse which are designed to re-connect people to the real world via virtual means. Users can post activities and services on-line and meet up off-line to share the experience.

Further Materials:


Real World vs. the Virtual World of Second Life -- Documentary of the Virtual World

Second Skin: Virtual Worlds Come to the Real World (BFD)

Real Data in Virtual Worlds -- Debra Anderson

Virtual Reality 1991

The Fermi Paradox & Virtual Worlds: Colonizing Inner Space

Science Documentary: Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Wearable Computing

Education in Virtual Worlds

Stephen Hawking's Science of the Future -- Virtual World

Virtual Worlds, Games and Interactive Fiction