A Social History of Virtual Worlds

By Sanchez, Joe | Library Technology Reports, February-March 2009 | Go to article overview

A Social History of Virtual Worlds


Sanchez, Joe, Library Technology Reports


Virtual worlds like World of Warcraft (WOW) and Second Life are a cultural and social phenomenon in North America and throughout the networked society. WoW is a virtual world where players assume a character and join other players to campaign and quest in a fantasy-like world of orcs, trolls, gnomes, and elves. Some virtual worlds like WoW contain a role-playing game at the core of the experience in which large numbers of players interact. Game-like virtual worlds are classified as Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). WoW is the most popular MMORPG, with ten million players paying a monthly subscription to play the game. (1) Virtual worlds such as Second Life, Active Worlds, and There have similar features to MMORPGs, but at their core they do not contain a game (although games do exist within these virtual worlds). Virtual worlds that are not games are considered to be social virtual worlds. Second Life is the largest social virtual world at the moment, with over fifteen million registered users. (2) Of the three social virtual worlds mentioned here, Second Life will be the focus of this report, as it is currently the most heavily populated, is cross-platform, and has a large community of librarians and educators.

From Text-Based Games to 3-D Social Virtual Worlds

Since the creation of the first text-based virtual world in 1979, (3) virtual worlds continue to captivate a user base that is co-evolving with the technology to the point that players are just as likely to raid an enemy territory with their guild (a cooperative group of players) as they are to help a library patron find online pedagogy resources from a virtual reference desk. Originally developed as text-based games capable of serving only a handful of users, virtual worlds now feature persistent 3-D worlds with graphical user interfaces providing the ability to interact with other people and objects while experiencing immediate feedback within a world inhabited by millions of users.

According to Betsy Book, both game worlds and social virtual worlds share five common features. (4) Virtual worlds are shared spaces used by many players at the same time. Virtual worlds contain a graphical user interface that depicts space visually. Interaction in virtual worlds occurs in real time; users experience immediacy. Virtual worlds allow users the ability to alter the world they are in; the space is interactive. Finally, virtual worlds are persistent worlds; the worlds continue even when a player logs out or quits a game. Book's classification is useful in identifying the similarities between gaming worlds and social worlds, but she ignores both the social and technical evolution and co-evolution of the users of and the technology of virtual worlds.

3-D virtual worlds as they exist today evolved from a lineage of multi-user text-based games played over TelNet dating back to 19797 Although many variations and breakthroughs have occurred since 1979, five milestones can be used to summarize the history of virtual worlds:

* Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs)

* TinyMUDs

* MOOs (Multi-User Dungeons Object Orientated)

* MMORPGs

* 3-D social virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds are an evolution of computer programs that were first known as MUDs (figure 1). Dating back to 1979, the first MUDs were text-based, and the interactions, environments, and communication all occurred without graphics. These words were used to describe encounters between the user or player and the virtual world:

   To the north a cobblestone path stretches
   out towards what appears to be an ancient
   battlefield. Along the path wilted trees
   corral a dense fog as the winds gust with
   voices of fallen warriors.

Players navigated through the MUDs with text commands such as "/walk north" or "/open" to open a door. In text-based MUDs, directional cues such as north, west, south, and east were used to navigate through the virtual world. …

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