A Poetics of Virtual Worlds

I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn't know how to connect with people there. I was afraid, all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. —Ernest Cline, Ready Player One

The Problem with Virtual Worlds.

Justice Potter Stewart once famously summarized the problem with defining obscenity, particularly pornography, with the phrase, "I know it when I see it." Like any form of obscenity, virtual worlds are usually defined by experiencing them firsthand. In other words, virtual worlds are hard to nail down because our definitions concerning what virtual means are just as nebulous and subjective as (say) our definitions for obscenity. For a poetics of virtual worlds to be successful, we must first start with what virtual worlds are, and we must build off of this work moving forward, especially if we are going to have a constructive conversation concerning the design of said virtual worlds.  

Defining Virtual Worlds.

Virtual worlds (and universes) are on everyone's minds these days. Why shouldn't they be? They're all around us, whether fully or just partially realized. Virtual worlds are worlds lifted from the depths of the imagination and rendered, using some form of technology—e.g., video equipment, CGI, animation, computer programming languages, etc.—, in the real world.

Virtual worlds are places where the imaginary meets the real. —Richard A. Bartle, Designing Virtual Worlds

That means virtual worlds are realized secondary worlds—i.e., worlds of the imagination—rendered in the real world for collective enjoyment, among other things. However, the definitions for what virtual worlds are gets a bit more complicated when we consider the working definitions forwarded by academics and virtual world designers.

According to Richard A. Bartle (2004, p.1), virtual worlds, as he defines them, should include the following characteristics:

  • Virtual worlds are realized with the help of computers or a network of computers.
  • Some entities within the virtual world are controlled by people.
  • The world, because it can be acted upon and changed by users simultaneously, is shared or multi-user in nature.
  • The virtual world continues to exist, even after players have logged out, making it persistent.

Bartle complicates this definition slightly within his "From MUDs to MMORPGs: The History of Virtual Worlds" (2010) article:

Essentially, a virtual world is an automated, shared, persistent environment with and through which people can interact in real time by means of a virtual self.

If Bartle were the end-all source for definitions, we'd stop there. However, that just isn't the case, so we have to seek out definitions elsewhere. In doing so, we will need to stitch together the disparate definitions, in order to fully (and truly) understand the nature of virtual worlds. This, in turn, will allow us to tackle important design considerations for virtual worlds.

Ralph Schroeder (2008) postulates that virtual worlds are

persistent virtual environments in which people experience others as being there with them — and where they can interact with them.

In other words, Schroeder is arguing that persistent environments must be a shared (i.e., collective) experience. If this shared (collective) experience is missing from the definition of virtual worlds, it is then reasonable to say anything can constitute a virtual world. However, as Schroeder points out, virtual worlds must be a shared experience, something you share with others—not just your imaginary friends—in order for a stable definition to exist. This creation of a stable definition is an important one, as it allows for a constructive discourse to take place within the realm of virtual worlds research and design.

Virtual Worlds Map (Incomplete) by G. Michael Rapp [2019]

Bell (2008) further complicates the already ambiguous term virtual worlds. Bell combines a series of definitions to create a sort of über definition for virtual worlds:

A synchronous, persistent network of people, represented as avatars, facilitated by networked computers.

If we consider Bell's definition above, this passage seems to be in agreement with Bartle (2003) and even Schroeder (2008), especially when it comes to the persistence of the world itself. Bell also seems to be in agreement with Bartle, both of whom argue that virtual worlds require some form of virtual self to exist, allowing players to interact with others and the world itself. Moreover, Bartle and Bell also appear to be in agreement when it comes to the nature of what constitutes a virtual world. The virtual world doesn't appear to be hinging on powerful graphical interfaces. In fact, there is little or no mention of graphical interfaces in Bartle's and Bell's respective works. Schroeder does allude to this by saying that MUDs (multi-user domains/dungeons) are not, in fact, virtual worlds. Instead, he argues that virtual worlds are

virtual environments that people experience as ongoing over time and that have large populations which they experience together with others as a world for social interaction.

Schroeder, in other words, is emphasizing the visual nature of technology here, something that verges on creating a sort of universal or damned near universal experience for those visiting the virtual world.

Girvan (2013) continues the work of Bartle (2003), Bell (2008), and Schroeder (2008) by examining academic literature seeking to define virtual worlds. Girvan concludes by suggesting that a stable, less ambiguous definition will ultimately benefit the research into virtual worlds. For the purposes of this article, I would argue that a stabler definition of virtual worlds allows designers to understand what they are designing. Definitions, although problematic, do offer a way to enter the conversation. However, I would like to argue that we shouldn't be beholden to definitions when designing/building virtual worlds. Instead, as I've stated above, definitions should be (simply speaking) conversation starters or places to begin from, especially when starting out for the very first time.

Nevertheless, Girvan offers a rather comprehensive definition  concerning what constitutes a virtual world (see below).

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.

Girvan's definition offers, to date, the stablest and most coherent understanding of what virtual worlds entail. However, I would like the venture out and craft a definition based on the literature I've just reviewed.

Virtual worlds must

  • Be collective (i.e., shared) experiences
  • Be persistent worlds (i.e., worlds that exist after players have logged off)
  • House multiple (human) users
  • Provide users with the ability to generate (and use/play) avatars
  • Provide users with the ability to communicate with others (including non-human characters) in-world and in real-time
  • Provide users with the ability to interact with the world itself
  • Provide users with the ability to affect the world itself(?)
  • Be immersive (sensory) experiences
  • Rely on the power of computer networks, Internet infrastructure, etc. to simulate the world itself, facilitate shared experiences, and provide in-world (and real-time) communication channels

The Opportunities and Challenges of Virtual World Design.

There are numerous opportunities when it comes to virtual world design. Looking at the definitions explored above, virtual world designers have a number of unique opportunities, including providing immersive (sensory) experiences and connecting others via virtual environments like virtual worlds. Game designers (and those designing social virtual worlds) are already ahead of the game. Some of my favorite games are developing into what would constitute as truly virtual worlds.

When designing virtual worlds, we must be cognizant of how player-visitors interact with the worlds or universes in question. In other words, we must understand design from the experiences of player-visitors, and not just as designers of virtual spaces. The concept from game design that is eerily reminiscent of what I am talking about is often referred to as player-centric game design.  This form of game design philosophy places the player at the heart of design processes, ensuring the consumers are at the heart of any product. Without this design approach, it would be difficult to play (and enjoy) a game designed by designers thinking of (maybe) only other designers or merely profits. Players would feel left out of the conversation. With that said, the designer of virtual worlds, whether they are designing game-like experiences or social spaces for people who can interact with others, must center their efforts on the end-users. End-users are at the heart of any great software development endeavor. And virtual spaces should be no different. Overall, player-/visitor-centric design offers a number of opportunities for designers looking to develop a solid virtual world product.

Facebook's Horizon project got me thinking the other day. What is the future of virtual worlds? In other words, how can we, as designers, creatives, and hobbyists, realize secondary worlds, in virtual spaces, that are both engaging and unique? Furthermore, are virtual worlds, with their game-centric lingo, still games, or something else entirely?
Facebook's Horizon (Social Spaces-Games Hybrid?)

One of the many problems with the video game market today is the saturation of cookie-cutter worlds or universes. Don't get me wrong, I love games, especially video games. However, it seems that the blockbuster hits just aren't speaking to me much anymore. I yearn for games, or, in this case, virtual worlds, that would allow me to explore, to socialize, to fight/kill, and to achieve something great.

My favorite gaming franchises have (somewhat recently) decided to wade into the online gaming realm. These are Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76, both of which had their attractions. Both promised to be fully realized secondary worlds in virtual spaces. Moreover, they promised to offer the real-time interaction between players, something lacking in the single-player models these game franchises once espoused. However, the problems with Elder Scrolls Online and Fallout 76 are numerous, particularly when you consider the abandonment of fanbases and the attempt to reformulate fan-favorites into cheapened (and horribly lonely) open-world experiences. The richness, the humor, and the depths realized by the single-player games of these popular franchises were lost in translation. In fact, these franchises lost fan respect when the game studios in charge ignored the fans, ignored the players. More importantly, these franchises made poor design choices, choices that favored certain business models over the tried and true methods that made the single-player games fun (really enjoyable) for countless hours.

The games I am singling out aren't the only ones suffering from poor design choices. In fact, much of the blockbuster game titles of the last few years have been a letdown, with few exceptions. For example, I recently purchased No Man's Sky, hoping for some improvements on the original game. What I found was an utterly engrossing concept, with few living (sentient) creatures populating the game's universe. The universe of No Man's Sky, although interesting and worthy of my time, was completely empty, devoid of any meaningful interaction that one needs in a virtual world or universe.

Poor design choices mar a number of products already on the market. In fact, Donald Norman, author of POET, or Psychopathology of Everyday Things, points out some rather interest design flaws in everyday products and attempts to educate designers (and even end-users) over the implications of poor design choices. Why are poorer design choices so prevalent? This is hard to say. Some would argue, and I think Donald Norman might agree, that poor design choices stem from a misunderstanding of end-users—i.e., those consuming the products. Other poor design choices might stem from profit-seeking over designing and creating a quality product—the whole quantity versus quality issue. With profit-seeking comes what I would term as rent-seeking. Rent-seeking indicates a willingness to monetize a product. In gaming, particularly virtual world games, this could mean something like micro-transactions, DLC purchases, and even subscriptions to access the walled-garden, i.e., the virtual world itself.

If a successful designer is to attract a large number of player-visitors, while ensuring the venture is sustainable in the long-run, there is a definite need to take into account good design. As the above passages indicate, virtual world designers have a number of unique opportunities. These include producing great content that keeps players/visitors coming back for more. Designers must also be cognizant of how players/visitors are going to use/play their products. Moreover, social interaction, immersion, and attention to detail, while offering engrossing stories, world-building, and the like, will keep players/visitors coming back for more. Challenges include choosing the right design methodologies, in order to ensure that players/visitors aren't alienated entirely. Challenges facing designers also include those areas we discussed as opportunities in the above sentences.

Further Reading.

Bartle, Richard A. (2004). Designing Virtual Worlds. Berkeley, California: New Riders (Imprint of Peachpit).

____________. (2010). "From MUDs to MMORPGs: The History of Virtual Worlds."

Bell, Mark W. (2008). "Toward a Definition of 'Virtual Worlds.'" Journal of Virtual Worlds Research Vol. 1, No. 1 ("Virtual Worlds Research: Past, Present & Future").

Fullterton, Tracy. (2019). Game Design Workshop. New York: CRC Press.

Girvan, Carina. (2013). "What is a Virtual World? Definition and Classification (TCD-CS-2013-10)". PDF.

Norman, Donald. (2002). The Design of Everyday Things. Philadelphia, PA: Basic Books.

Salen, Katie, and Zimmerman, Eric. (2004). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Schroeder, Ralph. (2008). "Defining Virtual Worlds and Virtual Environments." Journal of Virtual Worlds Research Vol. 1, No. 1 ("Virtual Worlds Research: Past, Present & Future").

Dear Readers,

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Gregory M. Rapp

Gregory M. Rapp

A writer of fiction and nonfiction, a blogger, an avid reader and writer, and gamer.
New Mexico