Defining « virtual » worlds…

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how to define « virtual worlds » and I am running into some problems. Potentially, because as Bell wrote: “There is currently, no agreed-upon definition” of a virtual world (Bell, 2008:2). Whilst I’ve seen that some researchers present very technological definitions, for example, “crafted places inside computers that are designed to accommodate larger numbers of people” (Castronova, 2004 in Bell, 2008), other researchers incorporate the sensory experience offered by virtual worlds: “a computer-generated display that allows or compels the user (or users) to have a sense of being present in an environment other than the one they are actually in” (Schroeder, 1996:25). As Schroeder argues, it appears vital that researchers establish a clear definition, firstly, in order to be able to set the phenomena apart from other technologies, and secondly, to guide research.

The need to find a common definition appears all the more important, on consideration that the term ‘virtual’ is loosely applied to anything online. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language draws attention to this. It explains that although when introduced, in the computational sense, ‘virtual’ was applied to things simulated by a computer, the adjective is often applied to things that really exist and which are created or carried out using computers e.g. virtual communities. Indeed, ‘virtual’ is often used in reference to things that mimic their “real” equivalents. For this reason, it may be more pertinent to use the term “synthetic worlds” for the ‘world’ in itself is in fact in force. It has become an extension of reality and perhaps even a reality itself. Moreover, it is made by people and often includes characteristics that do not mimic or mirror physical world equivalents e.g. being able to fly, or teleporting.

This week, I’m working on how to try to define synthetic worlds and what characteristics set these worlds apart from both the physical world and from other online phenomenon. I’ll be writing more on this topic…


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