No More Virtual Worlds

GameDaily recently published an article about how virtual worlds are overtaking the game industry. Citing popular web spaces like Habbo Hotel and Barbie Girls while drooling over Raph Koster’s upcoming Meatplace (thank you, F13), the article has some pretty impressive stats and theories to throw around.

But articles like this vex me, because I think the phrase “virtual worlds” has outlived its usefulness and is approaching the point of being misleading. So let’s cut through the catch phrases and get to the bottom of what we’re talking about here.

I know all kinds of theories have been written on what virtual worlds are and how they work. With all due respect to the Terra Nova academia crowd, a lot of that discussion feels contrived to me. Yeah, you can study online games and the people who play them, but you can also write papers on chess players and baseball teams. Any kind of social interaction can be studied; there’s nothing particularly unique or noteworthy about online gaming, other than the fact that Ma and Pa Kent never thought about avatar-to-avatar contact before.

I recently read a blog somewhere contending that “MMO” is not a genre but an adjective describing player interaction, and I agree (someone please comment with the link — I looked but couldn’t find it). “Virtual world” is much the same kind of phrase, because it doesn’t denote a real genre either. “Massively multi-player online” indicates entertainment software that includes interaction over the Internet between masses of people. “Virtual world” indicates some kind of simulated persistent environment shared by some amount of people.

Hey, those phrases seem pretty closely related. Whadaya know?

Some confuse “virtual world” with a world simulation, which is rarely the case. Few people are making online experiences that strive to simulate every aspect necessary for a functioning world, because that level of minutiae would be incredibly boring (and impossible for a single person to manage). In practice, what people describe as a virtual world is some kind of shared space with some degree of game or sport, some degree of community and social interaction, and a heavy dose of persistence.

World of Warcraft qualifies as a virtual world, but because the focus is on a single type of experience it tends to be called an MMORPG. Second Life qualifies as an MMORPG, but because it offers far less structured forms of gameplay it gets called a virtual world.

This is why I get a headache over all this terminology crap.

Case in point: No matter how virtual-worldy he gets, Raph is still making games; the Metaplace announcement included word that Areae would be releasing its own game as part of the platform. Because at the end of the day, people want to engage in some kind of game, whether it’s a single, tightly crafted experience such as WoW or EQ, or a loose collection of tools that can be messed with to create a more free-form kind of fun a la SL.

I realize that my whining over silly phrases isn’t going to change industry jargon, and that’s not my goal. More than anything I just want people to understand that whether something is called an online game or a virtual world, it’s just falling at various points along a series of ranges and being labeled for convenience. And whether you prefer a structured experience or something more free-form, you’re still a gamer.

Gamers, one and all.

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