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.