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.

Published by


Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

11 thoughts on “No More Virtual Worlds”

  1. Well, I broadly agree with your point — it bugs me a lot when jargon overtakes the actual meaning of phrases, as it happening to “virtual worlds.”

    But I think you are starting from the wrong end of the stick. There’s virtual worlds for education, for business, for psychotherapy, for collaborative writing — and have been for years, over a decade at least. They aren’t all games.

  2. 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).

    Boring? I can think of a few bestselling world simulations that do strive to simulate every aspect of a functioning world, but instead of requiring players to perform small actions in a big world, they let players make big moves so they can experience the virtual consequences without waiting hundreds or thousands or millions of years. The desire to “see what happens” is really quite strong.

    Your average task-driven quest system allows players to perform small actions in a big world, but who actually enjoys collecting X amount of A and killing X amount of B? I’d say those systems drive people to put X number of achievements under their belt, which isn’t always the same as having fun.

    I think small actions in a big world can be fun and rewarding when done right. I’m thinking of a game I might try to create on the Metaplace platform where players assume a certain occupation in a simulated world and their objectives are part of broader goals, of larger missions. That doesn’t sound like Cops & Robbers, does it? It is. Ever imagined what it would be like to be a highway patrolman charged with keeping the roads safe? A street cop charged with keeping the crime level down? An investigator with serious puzzles to solve? Or a police chief pressured by the mayor to run the precinct a certain way? Ever imagined what it would be like to be a pickpocket? Bank robber? Mobster? Or criminal mastermind?

    Just as scientists admire the beauty of the real world, I think there’s room for games where players can appreciate and enjoy the minutiae of everyday life, especially when those everyday lives are not their own.

  3. It’s all about the spectrum. There isn’t “MMO” at one end and “Virtual World” at another; there is “game” at one end and “world” at another, but almost nothing falls fully at one end of the spectrum.

    Some people try to create a hard line where an MMO ends and a VW begins, but I believe they aren’t even part of the same line on the spectrum. Virtual World is toward the “world” end of the world/game line, whereas MMO is toward the “multiplayer” end of the single-player/multiplayer line. Related, but one game can be both MMO and VW. Heck, I think an appropriately persistent single-player game can still be a VW, but I’m probably in the minority there.

  4. While academia loves nitpicking the phrases they hardly drive the direction of the industry. Once a better phraseology comes along they will drive those new terms into the ground.

    The problem with a term like “Virtual World” is just one of those phrases that is easy to understand. Even my grandparents vaguely get what it means.

  5. @moorgard: I think we are still in the “wild west of game nomenclature”, I agree the terms are very hazy, but like the god awful term “social graph” we are doomed to use whatever the general population chooses to use -> which is driven by newsweek/time/dateline/etc -> which is driven by the marketing of not necessarily the best games, but the games who are the best at the marketing game)


    So are you saying any persistent game, in essence has a virtual world (even if it is different for each person)?

    Not sure I would go that far personally. I agree with the 2 ends of the spectrum for 2+ player games, and if you had game x that lived on your harddrive (or in the cloud) and was persistent for a solo player, but had content that was updated on a regular basis by someone (to a mass number of people all in their own worlds), I don’t think it would belong on your spectrum.

    There are people who would say that since a “dev” is developing content for that player that there are technically 2 people interacting, but then with that definition most single player games throughout gaming would technically be multiplayer*.

  6. “While academia loves nitpicking the phrases they hardly drive the direction of the industry.”

    Good point, Ugsome. I confess I have no idea what phrases the average tween girl uses to refer to Habba or Barbie or Club Penguin. The terminology is fairly fluid and meaningless to their enjoyment of the games, I’d imagine.

    Morgan: My point is that simulating *every* aspect would be boring. What you’re talking about is abstracting out some set of pieces, which of course is proven to be interesting with various groups of people. But to have to literally micromanage everything that would need to take place in a true world simulation would, I contend, be boring. That is, having an incredibly detailed flight simulator is a huge turn-on to a segment of people, but if you have to manage things like the pilot’s diet, how many hours he sleeps, when he relieves himself, etc., I think that simulation becomes less and less accessible.

    Raph: Understood, but the most broad usage of “virtual worlds” is in reference to social gaming/community platforms, and that’s the angle I’m approaching this from. My ultimate agenda is to bring back the label “intellectual” as a derogatory term for academics and thinkers, leading the common game-loving people in a revolt against icons of the establishment such as yourself. This entry is merely Phase One. :)

  7. Virtual worlds is something a marketing bastard comes up with, or maybe it was Richard ‘To the moon’ Garriot with the ‘You’re in our world now’, although I suppose they are one in the same.

    “I recently read a blog somewhere contending that “MMO” is not a genre but an adjective describing player interaction, and I agree…”

    I think it’s neither really, it simply describes the scope of the online nature of a game. It does not imply persistance or player interaction at all. Do players interact the same in a MMORPG and a MMOFPS? No, but there are likely more than 64 people playing at once in both, thus massively multiplayer online… whatever.

    I think things can be broken down into simple categories and it’s not some sort of scale from complete realistic world simulation and completely game.

    Which leads me in fact to understand the true origin of the term Virtual World. You see, if someone who had no idea asked you what WoW was, you’d go ‘Oh it’s this game where..’, but if that same person asks what Second Life is, you’d first have to think for a period of minutes, before you cringe and say ‘Uh, it’s this… uh virtual world… where you uh…’.

    In effect a game has a point you can define, and a so called virtual world has no point at all.

  8. This is the closest thing I could find:

    Some say that massive multiplayer emphasizes the nature of the game over how many players actually play it. Others also prefer massive since they believe that multiplayer is an absolute adjective and cannot be sensibly modified by the adverb massively (e.g., just like “very dead”). Many gamers feel that the issue is trivial.


  9. I’m with Ryan… i consider one spectrum “game-to-world” with whatever larger descriptor you want to give it (virtual world, MMO, whatever) where the spectrum is about the level of directed action.

    Another spectrum entirely is the “world-to-community” which is a spectrum about environment, not interaction – with SL on one end, GAIA in the middle, and Yahoo groups on the other.

    But, after going to a virtual worlds conference and the chatter with gamers – I’m going of done with naming for a while. We’re just building something, hope people like it.

  10. I’m one of those economists who wants to use MMOs for research, and so I need terminology to talk to economists not up on the industry. I thought I had a good distinction in using VW as “all of this stuff–Habbo, SL, LOTRO…” and MMO as character-based game worlds. Now I see that whatever terminology I use I’ll likely wind up justs confusing people. Geez, thanks. ;)

    It’s odd to see things described as a spectrum with World toward one end and Game toward the other. I always think of the Game end as being more world-like (and maybe more worldly) than the non-Game end. A game has constraints, since those are required for challenges, and the constraints make things more world-like than a social VW which allows very unconstrained behavior. Just like much good SF, the important thing in making something a “world” is internal consistency, not how close it corresponds to reality.

    So, for instance, I think WoW is much more of a world than SL.

    This matters for me because I also think the game-like VWs are better for economics research than freeform VWs. More seriously simulationist VWs might satisfy, but games also provide player motivation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>