The Multiplicity of Virtual Worlds

Our definitions and metaphors: Discussion of how researchers and designers as users make sense of virtual world technologies

This short essay reflects a project that occurred before, during and after an international workshop hosted by the Virtual Worlds Research Project.  The goal was to complete a dialogue to help us understand the multiplicity of terms and definitions virtual worlds researchers created and appropriated to describe their work.  This essay could use additional work to become a state-of-the-art review of the field of virtual worlds research — thus, anyone is welcome to add their terms and definitions to this conversation.


A scholar’s epistemological and ontological perspectives can impact the methodological perspective s/he takes in conducting scholarship by influencing the methods chosen to explore, investigate, understand what is out there in the world (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003), whether that world be physical or virtual.  How we believe the world to be influences what we believe is the best way to study the world, which feedbacks to either prove or disprove our initial beliefs on the nature of the world.  Part of this process involves communication, as symbols of meaning are used to explain the epistemological, ontological and methodological perspectives that fuel scholarly work.  Whether we are communicating to each other, to our informants/participants/subjects, or just to ourselves in our internal dialogue, how we communicate via the labels we give our phenomena of interest relates to our beliefs about what they are, how they are, and how they can be studied.

To place this abstract ideation into the concrete context of this conference, consider the current field of research into virtual world technologies.  Already I am making an assumption, based upon my own philosophical perspectives, about the entity that is the focus of this conference when I call it “virtual world technologies”.  This communicating via jargon requires me to explain the jargon, and why it was chosen, in order for understanding to occur at all.  By virtual world technologies I mean those technological artifacts that contain content and, via our engaging with them, produce experiences that in some way result in and involve the sense of being in a geometrically defined space to interact with others online.

The ways we talk about virtual world technologies can both help and hinder our study, design and utilization of them (Boellstorff, 2010; Schroeder, 2008).  As this field is relatively new, we could potentially create a jargon map to understand how scholars, and even designers, are conceptualizing this new technology.  This paper will discuss a process being undertaken to do such a mapping by looking into what research community has produced to label, categorize, understand virtual world technologies, and also looking into what designers and producers have created and in some way labeled as being virtual world technologies.  The hope is to produce a dialogue and state-of-the-art review mapping out answers to the question “what is a virtual world”.


This is a paper in progress.  What is written here is only a description of a beginning of a conversation.  It is a conversation designed to consist of several parts, producing a dialogue among researchers and designers, coordinated to produce a state-of-the-art review (SOAR) on the terminology used to describe, study, create virtual world technologies.  The conversation consists of five activities that will occur before, during and after the conference.

The conversation begins with gathering two lists: 1) of all known labels used to describe this technology in research literature, and 2) of all known virtual worlds online and how they are described.  This list generation is followed by the construction of an online dialogue before the conference.  At the conference, a card sorting task will provide the foundation for the another dialogue.  This task feeds into a second online dialogue.  All of this work will culminate in the state of the art review.

The Lists.  The first list will be used to address how researchers across different discourse communities make sense of virtual world technologies via their ways of talking about them through the use of labels, definitions, and metaphors.  This exploration into the research literature is used to gather our understandings of what is “this thing”, virtual world technologies.  I began generating this list last fall (Fall 2009).  Below I report on some of the initial findings.  In the future, this list of terms will be used to explore the research literature to map the prevalence of each term across time and across different discourse communities.  However, as I have said, this SOAR is the final step in this conversation.

The second list is being generated by our research project.  It is an attempt to get a picture of the current amount of virtual world technologies available on the internet, including how they are using the labels found in the first list.  This list will be ready for disbursement online before the workshop as a database of active online places that could be considered as virtual worlds, with the variety of definitions that can be useful for determining this categorization.

The Dialogues.  As the lists are being generated, the next step will occur in the month leading up to the conference.  In this step, the research community will also be asked to participate in an online discussion as the first of three rounds of dialogue about the terms used to discuss virtual world technologies.  Those researchers attending the conference will in particular be asked to participate in this conversation as preparation for the at conference dialogue.  This first round will ask participants to answer questions on how they identify what is or is not a virtual world, by discussing both terms and examples.

The second round of the conversation will occur during the conference, using the two lists that will have been generated by then.  Both lists will be used to develop a card sorting task the conference participants will be asked to undertake.  In groups, participants will be given cards with labels, characteristics and examples of virtual world technologies taken from the two lists.  They will be tasked to sort these cards into categories of their choosing: the point is that they have to discuss how they would sort and create such categories.  At the end of their discussions, the groups will report back to everyone about their experience having this discussion.  The overall discussion for the session will be centered on where our differences and commonalities lie, and how the appearance of both impacts our ability to communicate what we mean when we talk about “this thing”, virtual world technologies.

Examples of the mappings completed by the conference participants.

The categories they created will be saved and used for the third round of the conversation, which will return to being online.  After the workshop’s card sorting task, within the following month, another online discussion will occur as to follow-up on what was learned via this task.  The categories from the card sorting task will be provided, and questions will focus on asking the conference participants to reflect upon their experience in this task and with their communicatings about virtual world technologies, and the overall utility of defining “this thing”.

The SOAR.  The end result of all of these steps would be to produce a paper that discusses the current understanding among scholars and designers about what is virtual world technologies by mapping out the various ways they communicate about it.  What terms are used most often, and when and where are they used?  In what context are these terms used?  Does there appear to be agreement upon what is or is not a virtual world, and what terms to use to define the differences and commonalities in virtual world technologies?  Does it matter if we agree or disagree on the answer?

The First List:

As mentioned above, the first list began to be generated last fall to indicate the variety of terms used to label and thereby define the entity of our engaging, “virtual worlds”.  This list focused on gathering these labels, characteristics, metaphors and explicitly stated definitions to answer “what is a virtual world”.  The goal of this list is to provide a foundation for the conversation through the collection of the words we are using to communicate our ideas, and boundaries, as we negotiate the identity of our object of study.

To begin, let us consider the various definitions to answer the question “what is a virtual world”, and how they contrast/compare in terms of the technological features used to create the boundaries of inclusion/exclusion that make categorization possible.  Of the researchers working in this field, Mark Bell and Sarah Robbins-Bell appear to have written the most on the topic.  According to their joint analysis of the etymology of the term, the term “virtual worlds” goes back to 1965 and Ivan E. Sutherland’s idea that through computer screens we can see a “virtual world” (Bell & Robbins-Bell, 2008).  This usage was repeated by Richard Bolt in 1980. This idea of the computer as window into a new world grew in 1980s as computers became powerful enough to construct/maintain/model “complex natural environments”, so that before the rise of the internet, anything “beyond the screen” was a “virtual world”.

With the rise of internet and networked computers in the 1990s, “virtual worlds” became conceived as multiple and interacting.  In what was apparently the first modern definition, Bruce Damer in 1997 mentioned “navigable visual digital environments…inhabited by users represented as avatars” (as quoted in Bell & Robbins-Bell, 2008).  Following Damer, other “formal” (i.e. published) definitions include:

  • Richard Bartle (2003): “environment that its inhabitants regard as being self-contained”.
  • Raph Koster (2004): “spatially based depiction of a persistent virtual environment, which can be experienced by numerous participants at once, who are represented within the space by avatars”.
  • Edward Castronova (2004): “crafted places inside computers that are designed to accommodate large numbers of people”.
  • Mark Bell (2008): “A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers.”
  • Sarah Robbins-Bell (2008): “persistence; multiuser; avatars; wide area network”.
  • Ralph Schroeder (2008): persistent virtual environments in which people experience others as being there with them – and where they can interact with them.”
  • Tom Boellstorff (2010): “places of human culture realized by computer programs through the Internet, a definition that includes online games but excludes things like email and websites, and thus even social networking sites like Facebook”.

Across these definitions we see the following similarities in what are defining characteristics: people, computers, and space/place.  Differences across the definitions include: persistence, presence, avatars.  None of these definitions specifically address the representation of the world, via computer graphics (2D or 3D) or text — although Boellstorff (2010) stated a virtual world does not need visuality — and the necessity of the interaction to be synchronous versus asynchronous.  This list of definitions is not definitive, as I am constantly seeking more, and it is hoped that this conversation will help develop this list to include all the diverse viewpoints.

Now let us consider only the various terms used to label virtual worlds, or as synonyms for virtual worlds, or to denote specific types of virtual worlds.  First I’ll discuss some examples found online of students and teachers struggling with the plethora of terms and definitions being used.  Antonio Saponaro (2007), in trying to explain in a short assignment paper what is Second Life, has an explanation that shows the slipperiness of terms and labels as well as their interrelatedness:

“Second Life is defined trough different acronyms: MUVE (Multiplayer Virtual Environment) is the most used, but it’s even ascribed at the MMOGs’ family (Massively Multiplayer Online Game), wherein it’s defined as a MMOSG (Massively Multiplayer Online Social Game) to distinguish it among other role play games (MMORPG).”

Rafael Thyago Antonello, in his 2008 master’s thesis, written in Portuguese, provided a list of acronyms in his glossary that included:

CVE Collaborative Virtual Environment, IVE Immersive Virtual Environment, MMORPG Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, MMOS Massive Multiplayer Online Social Game, MMVW Massively Multiplayer Virtual World, MOO Multi-Users Domains Object Oriented, MUD Multi-Users Domains, MUVE Multi-User Virtual Environment, VW Virtual World

Teachers, who are consumer-users when they engage with virtual worlds, likewise can be seen as enveloped with the multiplicity of terms.

“A MUVE, or Multiuser Virtual Environment, is an online area where teachers and students can collaborate on projects, hold conferences, attend sessions hosted by experts, and build virtual learning environments. Other names for this environment are MUD (Multiuser Domain), MOO (MUD, Object Oriented), and MUSE (Multiuser Simulated Environment).”

By looking over such lists, and going through research publications, I have generated a list of terms that I present here as having been used to answer the question “what is a virtual world”:

  • virtual community, online game, digital game, social game, casual game
  • MOO (Multi-User Object Oriented Domain/Dungeon), MUD (Multi-User Dungeon/Domain), MMO (Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online), MMOG (Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online Game), MMOSG (Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online Social Game), MMORPG (Massive(ly) Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game)
  • (3D) MUVE (Multi-User Virtual/Visual Environment), SVWE (Social Virtual World Environment), MUSE (Multi-User Simulated Environment)
  • networked world, virtual world, synthetic world, digital world, mirror world, sim, simulation, social virtual world, gaming virtual world, metaverse
  • 3D platform, virtual environments, synthetic environments, 3D environments, CVE (Collaborative Virtual Environment), IVE (Immersive/Intelligent Virtual Environment), DVE (Distributed Virtual Environment), 3D web, 3D internet
  • virtual reality, networked virtual reality

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

The question remains: is there a definitive entity we can point to as a “virtual world”, one which we are circling with our various terms and definitions?


Antonello, R. T. (2008).  ”Análise e modelagem de tráfego do mundo virtual Second Life”.  Master’s thesis submitted to Universidade de Federal de Pernambuco, Pernambuco, Brazil.

Bartle, R. A.  (2003)  Designing Virtual Worlds.  Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press.

Bell, M. W. (2008). Toward a definition of “virtual worlds”.  Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(1), available online at

Bell, M. W. & Robbins-Bell, S. (2008).  Towards an expanded definition of “virtual worlds”.  In F. Villares (Org) New Digital Media: Audiovisual, games and music. (pp. 125-134).  Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: E-Papers.

Boellstorff, T.  (2010).  A typology of ethnographic scales for virtual worlds.  In W. S. Bainbridge (Ed.)  Online Worlds: Convergence of the real and the virtual.  London: Springer-Verlag.

Castronova, E.  (2004).  Synthetic Worlds: The business and culture of online games.  Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Dervin, B. & Foreman-Wernet, L.  (Eds.).  (2003).  Sense-Making methodology reader: Selected writings of Brenda Dervin.  Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Koster, R. (2004). “A virtual world by any other name?”  Terra Nova blog,

Koster, R.  (2004).  “A virtual world by any other name?” Terra Nova Blog,

Robbins-Bell, S.  (2008).  “Using a faceted classification scheme to predict the future of virtual worlds.”  Presented at the Association of Internet Research Conference, 9.0, Copenhagen, Denmark.

Saponaro, A. (2007).  “Assignment 3: Second Life as didactic environment.”  Retrieved online from

Schroeder, R. (2008). Defining virtual worlds and virtual environments.  Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 1(1), available online at

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