Synthetic worlds – third places?

In the previous post, I described synthetic worlds as generative. From this, we understand that they offer a more open-ended experience than computer games. This suggests that their primary function is social. Indeed, Oldenburg’s concept of a ‘third place’ where “individuals gather to socialize informally beyond the workplace [second place] and home [first place]” (1999) may help in defining synthetic worlds. Oldenburg outlines eight characteristics of ‘third places.’ I will look at each of these in detail and discuss how it applies to synthetic worlds (SW).

Characteristic In what ways is this characteristic true of a SW?
Neutral ground Users can come and go as they please.The anonymity of avatars allows people to engage with minimal involvement. 
Leveler The avatars’ users rank and status in the workplace or society is not of importance. Avatars may choose a status unconnected to their physical-world status.There are not normally prerequisites to join virtual worlds (NB some have age requirements e.g. WeeWorld ages 13+, Second Life 18+)
Conversation is the main activity There are many different conversation channels in SWs e.g. group audio chat, group text chat, private text chat. Conversation is possible despite language barriers e.g. via translating tools.
Accessibility and accommodation SWs are persistent and thus perpetually accessible. However, barriers exist e.g. users need computer access, computer literacy skills
The regulars (attract newcomers and give the space its characteristic mood) The social aspect of interaction in SWs is what attracts many avatars to return. Also, the communication is synchronous: if one player changes something in the world the other avatars will see this. Avatars, therefore, fill the world with meaning.
A low profile SWs do not fit this characteristic in the literary sense. They are far from being ordinary,
Playful mood Playful quality to SWs e.g. avatars’ gestures, terminology e.g. ‘sandboxes’ rather than building sites
A home away from home Users organise their own comings and goings in and from the SW.


As we can see from the above table, synthetic worlds meet nearly all of Oldenburg’s characteristics of a ‘third place’ apart from that of a low profile. They are free or inexpensive, are easily accessible, are proximate for many of the users to their first or second places (arguably even more so than other common third places such as cafes or bars which may involve walking from ones home or workplace), involve regular users and are welcoming. Synthetic worlds, thus, can be seen as social worlds, separate from the social environments of home and the workplace. They can be considered as meeting places which foster creative interaction and where people or their avatars can establish and feel a sense of place (telepresence) through socialising. Indeed, in a survey by Parks Associates, 29% of respondents gave their top reason for visiting a synthetic world as being “to escape real life.” Thus, it appears important that the social aspect of synthetic worlds feature in the definition I will choose to adopt for my research.

“I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.”

Philip Rosedale, the creator of one of the largest synthetic worlds, Second Life, said, in an interview by Daniel Terdiman on Wired “I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.” Therefore, let me, first, look at the characteristics which are common to both synthetic worlds and online gaming worlds (or Massive Multiplayer Online Games such as A World of Warcraft or King of Mafia), before turning to the characteristics which set them apart.

The graphical user interface is perhaps the most similar feature between online gaming worlds and synthetic worlds. The interface allows the player or user to interact with the environment in ways that are not simply text-based. That is to say that the space in the environments is depicted visually and there can be direct manipulation of the graphical elements e.g. dragging and dropping objects or turning a simulated steering wheel to move a simulated car.

Another feature common of both phenomenon is that of shared space. Both environments allow many users to be connected simultaneously. For example, for the year 2008, on average 38,000 users were logged in any one time to the synthetic world Second Life whereas the average number of users connected to A World of Warcraft at the same time is thought to be around 500,000.

Synthetic worlds and online gaming worlds also share the feature that the individual world’s existence continues whether an individual user or player is connected or not: the environments are ‘persistent’. (Note, however, that this is not true of single-user games such as online Pacman.) As Bell (2008:2) expresses, these worlds cannot be “paused.” Rather the environment is dynamic and evolves continuously even if one user has exited the game or world. For example, building in the synthetic world ActiveWorlds continues even when a user is personally not logged in; meaning that, on their return to the world, a new home or castle may be part of the environment. Another example, taken from a multi-user game, is that of Mafia Wars where a player may find, on returning to the game, that someone has stolen their character’s money or beaten up their character.

Now let me turn to what differentiates synthetic worlds from games in general and more specifically online gaming worlds.

Salen and Zimmerman (2004) stated that “a game is a system in which players engage in artificial conflict, designed by rules that result in a quantifiable outcome.” Demsey et al (1996 in Crown, 2008) add to this that “a game involves some aspect of competition, even if that competition is with oneself.”

In games, the superior meaning is undoubtedly to achieve an appointed activity. There are goals and objectives. The underlying structure and the plot of the game are of great importance. The games are based upon a story and a story line that players must follow to progress towards a pre-determined goal. Often, the games adjust the level of challenge, placing goals, at a level slightly beyond the users’ capacities.

In a synthetic world, users have neither a real quest or a defined objective to fulfil nor an evil to defeat. There are also no levels for the users to go up or down nor is there any pre-determined story. In comparison, there is a high degree of freedom. They have few embedded rules and structures. Instead, a synthetic world needs its users to fill the environment with meaning and to extend the environment in order to make sense. The rule structure of a game is arguably what differentiates games from synthetic worlds. Whereas progression (and, thus, meaning) in games is highly scripted, synthetic worlds allow a wide range of behaviours and variations in how they should be “played.”   As a result, their progression and their meaning are generative.

Book (2004:11-12) even claims that “When gamers visit social worlds they are often disappointed or confused when they find that many of the things they have come to expect from their favorite gaming worlds either do not exist or exist in very changed or limited forms.” This reinforces the argument that meaning, in synthetic worlds, is created by their users and any patterns emerge from social reaction rather than being pre-determined due to the rules, story lines and pre-arranged plots which guide the interaction. Synthetic worlds, thus, differ from online gaming worlds as they are generative and therefore can be considered as offering more open-ended experiences.

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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