Increased broadband access and the emergence of more powerful computers for everyday use are fuelling a rise in the popularity of shared multi-user online spaces known as virtual worlds.
Virtual worlds are simulated environments accessed by multiple users through an online interface. Other terms for virtual worlds include digital worlds, synthetic worlds, and massively multiplayer online games. Perhaps you've visited one already. If not, your children probably have.
Neal Stephenson's 1992 novel Snow Crash envisioned a futuristic virtual world called the metaverse in which characters controlled digital representations of themselves (known as avatars) in a shared online environment.
Today, instead of one cohesive metaverse, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of virtual worlds in existence, with themes ranging from fantasy and science fiction to idealised modern environments like tropical islands, gardens, and town squares.
Most of today's virtual worlds have been built by commercial entities for entertainment purposes.
The majority are conceived of and marketed as games, but over time the term virtual world will expand to cover a broader range of uses in the entertainment, education, medical, and military industries.
Virtual worlds, real money
In Snow Crash's metaverse, the most powerful characters are those who can afford to purchase sophisticated avatar accessories and other virtual assets.
This is fairly close to the truth in today's virtual worlds, as the market for virtual goods grows each year to meet the demands of users who will shell out real money to purchase special items that can be used to customise their avatars and virtual homes.
The issue of real money trading (RMT) is actually quite a controversial topic amongst virtual world aficionados. Those who want virtual worlds to have a level playing field in which any user, regardless of offline wealth, has a fair chance of acquiring status within the world are against RMT.
They feel that the use of real money to get ahead is a form of cheating. In spite of this, the secondary market value for virtual goods has been estimated at anywhere between 200 million and 880 million US dollars.
Clearly, not all participants agree that their virtual experiences should remain untainted by real cash purchases. Some even point out that the growth of this market show design flaws in certain games which impose draconian 'levelling grinds' on players that inspire the purchase of ready-made high-level characters.
Pro-RMT users actively support the use of real currency to purchase digital objects, either through direct purchasing activities, the establishment of virtual businesses that generate real revenue for the owner, or through participation in virtual trading markets that have sprung up through sites like eBay and IGE.com, where in-world characters and assets are regularly bought and sold for real cash.
Most virtual worlds conceived as games have traditionally remained opposed to RMT, however some virtual worlds like There, Habbo Hotel and Second Life actually encourage participants to spend real money on virtual objects.
Because these worlds function primarily as social spaces rather than games, there are fewer incentives for users to maintain a strict boundary between virtual and real.
In contrast to the elves, dwarves, princesses, and warriors found in gaming worlds like Everquest and World of Warcraft, social world avatars are more likely to take human form, appearing in modern-day dress based on recognisable real-world fashion trends.
In fact, many members of these sites go out of their way to create avatars that resemble their offline appearance and view these worlds as tools that allow them to make new (real) friends rather than as opportunities to play a fictional character in a game.
Because a user's real-world personal reputation may be affected by their virtual representation in a social virtual world, they are even more likely to spend time and money on avatars.
The complexities involved in choosing an avatar's appearance in both gaming and social worlds gives rise to many fascinating identity issues that have been the subject of inquiry by academics and artists.
Nick Yee's Daedelus Project, a comprehensive study of the psychology of massively multiplayer online environments, includes several studies related to avatar identity.
Photojournalist Robbie Cooper's 'Alter Ego' show at London's Proud Gallery in October 2005 displayed real-life photographs of virtual world participants side by side with screen shots of their avatars in various types of virtual worlds.
The future of virtual worlds
While current RMT activity and the use of avatars to project real-world identity demonstrate that the boundary between the virtual and the real is already quite blurred, this boundary will fade even more over time.
From increased growth of virtual asset trade to greater use of virtual worlds as tools for socialising, over time virtual worlds will evolve well beyond their gaming roots. For better or for worse, virtual worlds will increasingly function as centres of commerce, trade, and business.
In Second Life alone, transactions have reached a rate of 2.7 million US dollars per month. Real world brands will use virtual worlds to prototype, advertise and sell goods. Brands that have already appeared in virtual worlds include Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Nike, Levi's and DaimlerChrysler.
A multiplicity of metaverses will exceed the singular conception of one centralised online world envisioned by science fiction authors, for just as we've seen an endless variety of websites over the past decade, we'll see an ever-increasing variety of virtual worlds.
You may visit one world to perform work that earns you a real paycheck, a different world to take a college course, another to play games with friends who log in from all over the world, and yet another to chat with family members who live both near and far away.
As technological advances such as increased broadband and mobile access make it easier to access virtual world spaces on a daily basis, visits to virtual worlds will increasingly become part of the fabric of everyday life.
Virtual worlds will no longer be places one 'goes' to visit. Instead, online and offline will mesh to become part of one's daily routine.
Is your avatar ready for the virtual future?
Six features of a virtual world:
- Shared space. The world allows many users to participate at once.
- Graphical user interface. The world depicts space visually.
- Immediacy. Interaction takes place in real time.
- Interactivity. The world allows users to alter, develop, build, or submit customised content.
- Persistence. The world's existence continues regardless of whether individual users are logged in.
- Community. The world allows and encourages the formation of in-world social groups like teams, guilds, clubs, cliques, housemates, or neighbourhoods.