It’s Not a Game …

Even though my PhD-research has focused exclusively on Second Life, I will in one of my theoretical chapters examine the concept and evolution of Virtual Worlds in general. As a prelude to a discussion of several Virtual World definitions and typologies, I have chosen to look closer at what two prominent figures within the field have to say about Virtual Worlds. Richard A. Bartle (co-creator of MUD1, which by many is considered the first computer-based (albeit text only) Virtual World) and Cory Ondrejka (co-creator of Second Life) both agree that Virtual Worlds are not games.  However, what’s interesting is that Bartle and Ondrejka seem to reach this conclusion based on very different arguments.

On the first page in his book, “Designing Virtual Worlds”, Richard A. Bartle proposes a definition of Virtual Worlds:

Virtual worlds are implemented by a computer (or networks of computers) that simulates an environment. Some – but not all  – entities in this environment act under the direct control of individual people. Because several such people can affect the same environment simultaneously, the world is said to be shared or multi-user. The environment continues to exist and develop internally (at least to some degree) even when there are no people interacting with it; this means it is persistent. (Bartle, 2004, p.1)

According to Bartle Virtual Worlds began as computer games, which explains why much of the vocabulary used to describe Virtual Worlds is games-based:

Thus, the human beings who interact with the simulated environment are known as players rather than users; the means by which the environment introduces goals for the players is called gameplay; the activity of interacting with the environment is referred to as playing. (Bartle, 2004, p.2 – original emphasis)

Further, Bartle explains that the first Virtual Worlds were text-based and known as Multi-User Dungeons, MUDs, and although “all these persistent, shared, computer-based environments can and should be referred to as MUDs, the term is sufficiently loaded that outside the cognoscenti it is unlikely to be universally interpreted this way”, and Bartle therefore prefers to adopt the “more descriptive and less emotive” concept of Virtual Worlds (ibid. p.3). Based on Bartle’s initial characteristics of Virtual Worlds, which in the first chapter includes a review of what easily could be perceived of as computer-game history, it is interesting to see why Bartle dismisses the term “game”. Bartle, in fact, devotes the book’s sixth chapter entitled “It’s Not a Game, It’s a …” to explaining why he has abandoned the term. The beginning of the chapter reveals the core argument:

Virtual worlds began as games. However, right from the beginning – MUD1 – it was clear there was more to them than being mere games. Trying to convince people to take what they considered to be a “game” seriously was problematical, though. In academic circles, the only intellectual acceptable games were traditional ones, such as chess and checkers. A new game was not a worthwhile object of study. Playing games was a waste of computer resources. Thus, virtual worlds became “simulations” – and far more respectable! (Bartle, 2004, p. 473)

Bartle’s need to distance himself from the game term was essentially due to a public (mis)conception of games as unserious contexts/activities and hence unworthy of serious studies[1]. While this concern is commonly recognized and shared among several authors, it does come across as somewhat curious insofar as Bartle insists on using a gaming vocabulary and gaming principles when discussing design of Virtual Worlds.

MUD1 (source)

Nonetheless, the need to differentiate between games and Virtual Worlds is also of concern for Cory Ondrejka, although his argumentation is quite different from Bartle’s. According to Ondrejka Virtual Worlds represent a new category of digital experience different from games[2] most notably because Virtual Worlds like Second Life have no game fictions or leveling;

Strong game fictions mean the games take place within relatively cohesive settings that discourage intermingling with the real world. Fantasy motifs are common, but certainly not the only option. Leveling is the process of measuring progress via increases in experience points. These experience points are gained by activities appropriate to the level, and each new level grants the player access to new abilities or game features. (Ondrejka, 2008, p. 230-231)

While fully recognizing the close relationship to games due to shared history, technology, vocabulary, and oftentimes customers, Ondrejka continues to delineate the difference:

Virtual worlds are something different. While still massively multiplayer, meaning that thousands of players simultaneously experience the world in a shared space, they possess neither strong fictions nor leveling. Instead, their defining characteristic is the ability of residents to generate creations of value within a shared, simulated, 3D space. Strong, predefined fictions are not appropriate, as they limit the design space available to the residents. Instead, residents create their own fictions and communities, imbuing them with meaning through interaction. (Ondrejka, 2008, p. 231)

For me, as seen from an educational design perspective, the lack of gameplay (i.e. pre-determined context, goals of use, roles and rules of interaction, progression, and quantifiable outcome) is one of the most important – if not the most important – defining features of Virtual Worlds because of the design possibilities and challenges it poses. “Your World, Your Imagination” truly has defined my SL experience since 2007, and I have to agree that it’s not a game! Still, exactly what it is remains to be determined ;-)


[1] Ironically, as Bartle further notices, when Virtual Worlds became commercially successful through the advent of Massively Multi-Player Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs), such as Ultima Online in the late 1990’s, Virtual Worlds were once again commonly referred to as games. Nonetheless, the less serious connotations related to the term game continued and in Academia, the concept of “serious games” emerged to justify the study of human behaviour in games used for purposes other than mere entertainment. The term “serious game” was actually used long before the introduction of computer and electronic devices into entertainment. Clark Abt discussed the idea and used the term in his 1970 book Serious Games, although his references were primarily to the use of board and card games.

[2] Based on Salen and Zimmerman (2003) Ondrejka defines a game as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Ondrejka, 2008, p. 231).


Bartle, R.A. (2004): “Designing Virtual Worlds”. New Riders.

Ondrejka, C. (2008): “Education Unleashed: Participatory Culture, Education, and Innovation in Second Life.” The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. p.229–252.

40 thoughts on “It’s Not a Game …

  1. gridjumper May 6, 2012 / 5:37 pm

    Seems that definitions are getting jumbled. Perhaps virtual worlds are a platform for potential games developed by users for a specific purpose.

  2. Mariis May 6, 2012 / 6:23 pm

    Yes, as always in humanities – and trying to tidy up the mess has taken way longer that expected! User-generated content/purpose can definitely be a characteristic of VWs, and this could be designed as a game – in fact, the many (different) possibilities is probably what makes it so hard to distinguish VWs from other environments – Ondrejka mentions that the WWW could be considered a VW …

  3. Mirror World May 6, 2012 / 7:12 pm

    Another, not so academic, way to define if a virtual world as a game:
    If Second Life was a game, you would be able to find high score lists and walkthrough’s all over the internet.

  4. Miso Susanowa May 7, 2012 / 3:46 am

    One of my pleasures was writing elaborate “dungeons” or text-based virtual worlds – assembling an entire landscape, castle grounds and rooms from text & the imagination of the users/players. I included theme, persistent logic, mythological content, computer tropes & etc in environments that could have up to 7 PAGES of description for major “rooms.” They were simultaneously a “game” (find your way around, determine the layout of the room/castle/grounds) and a short story filled with cultural referents and fantasy-SF themes.

    I still consider those “virtual worlds” as much as VRML, Second Life, OSGrid or EVE Online.

  5. Mariis May 7, 2012 / 7:10 am

    he, he – yes, and I’ve never heard of anyone selling SL-avatars on the black market either ;-)

  6. Mariis May 7, 2012 / 7:21 am

    Thank you very much, Miso – it’s very interesting to read about your experience! Many Virtual Worlds seem to be hybrids, and I guess one way of making distinctions could depend on the foundational design strategy – is the world primarily open-ended or fixed, user- or designer-determined …

  7. Pep May 7, 2012 / 10:18 am

    Of course it’s a game! Apart from the fact that Life is a game, which makes Second Life – or any other virtual world that is a subset of Life – a game, as soon as one participant treats anything as a game it becomes a game, regardless of how it is perceived by the others that are impacted by that gaming participant. Pep (Don’t distinguish games as being less than serious; real life warfare is also a game.)

  8. Mariis May 7, 2012 / 10:55 am

    Cool to see another perspective on this, thx Pep! I don’t mean to dismiss games as being less serious than other human activities – they can be very serious indeed, but I agree with Bartle on the common misconception (especially among non-gamers) and I understand why he feels the need to distance himself (although I do think a lot has happened since 2004!). The lack of LL-designed gameplay, and especially the lack of pre-determined outcome for the in-world interaction, is my main argument for not considering SL a game. Evidently, one can enter SL with the purpose to play (a game) – just as you notice, we can/do play (games) outside. There’s also an interesting distinction between play and game. With my particular focus on educational potential, the degree of user control conditions the types of learning activities that can be envisioned …

  9. timjohnson May 9, 2012 / 1:32 pm

    Sorry to come so late to the discussion. I would like to offer another perspective. I use SL almost only for work, I consider it a communication device just like Twitter, Facebook, etc. SL has different affordances, it can be used for what ever you want, a meeting, a game, a social networking area but it is basically a communication device – not a game :)

  10. Mariis May 9, 2012 / 2:54 pm

    Hi Tim, well that’s the beauty of asynchronous communication – you can’t be late :-) I agree that SL also can be considered a communication device – it’s just based on a different design metaphor than i.e. Twitter and Facebook, and it has different affordances as you mention. In fact, depending on one’s purpose (and especially in Academia one’s scientific background) one could characterize SL as a number of things; system, platform, technology, medium, space, environment etc. Linden Lab itself characterizes SL as a ” 3D Virtual World”, and in relation to that, I think it’s fruitful to distinguish between the concept “Virtual World” and defining SL as a certain kind/type of “virtual world”. I’m hoping to post some “working definitions” later today …

  11. richardbartle May 11, 2012 / 8:40 am

    If you want to know more about the historical relationship between game worlds and social worlds, you should look at the “great schism” of around 1990 where the two parted company. See this presentation on my web site:; it was aimed at a game designer audience, but if you stick with it you’ll get the picture. If you want the academic paper that resulted from it, let me know and I’ll email it to you (or you can read it in

  12. Mariis May 11, 2012 / 9:01 am

    Thank you for pointing to those resources, Richard – I’m looking forward to having a closer look at them :-)

  13. Michael Vallance (@FUN2020) May 28, 2012 / 11:28 pm

    You are right – it’s not a game! But getting traditionalists in Higher Education to change that mindset is a challenge. I find that industry and even the military are more open to using virtual worlds for training an dedication than ‘educational establishments’. Ironic really! Our research focusses upon collaborative programming in an attempt to visualize learning in virtual worlds. See
    plus a number of our publications listed at
    Good luck with the PhD.
    Michael Vallance (Japan)

  14. Mariis May 29, 2012 / 9:00 am

    Hi Michael, thank you for stopping by :-) “Future University” – I like that – sounds ambitious, and we need to be ambitious in Education! Yes, I’ve seen some outstanding work coming form both the military and the industry – cf. FCVW. I’m not surprised, money rules, and it is easier to find funding when either lives or “budget lines” are at stake. I’m looking forward to exploring the links you provided …

  15. Steve S. June 6, 2012 / 7:33 pm

    I find all this interest in virtual worlds intriguing and interesting. The military industry has been working with the concept of “virtual worlds” since the early ’90s except no one called it that. Instead of a single monolithic system like Second Life, there was defined technologies that allowed simulations to “see” each other starting with Distributed Interactive Simulation (DIS) and eventually High Level Architecture (HLA). Under HLA, the enabling system was called a Run Time Infrastructure (RTI). The focus was not so much on avatar representations of people, but on representations of vehicles they call “entities”. Entities controlled directly by people are categorized as Virtual (similar to the way avatars are in VWs). Computer driven entities are categorized as Constructive (what you might call a Bot in VWs). The are even able to fold real objects into the simulation. These entities are categorized as Live. You can read more about this early version of a virtual world at,_virtual,_and,_constructive. This technology is still used today for training and rehearsal.

  16. Mariis June 7, 2012 / 8:09 am

    Well, thank you Steve for this interesting elaboration :-) There clearly is a more “natural” approach to virtual environments in the military industry. I’m thinking one of the reasons why you didn’t call it virtual worlds could be that there is a difference between simulations that I think tend to be more context-specific, and limited in scope and worlds that typically (at least for the non-game centric types) tend to be more open-ended. Both types can be great for training/education – it just depends on the goals, I think …

  17. Xpontaneus June 18, 2012 / 3:18 pm

    Well, I consider some virtualworlds as “A game”, or may be a “Social Game”. Some people don’t get serius about Virtual Worlds, I respect everyone’s opinion but I still think that SL is a game.

  18. Mariis June 18, 2012 / 8:13 pm

    Thank you for stopping by, Xpontaneus :-) Would you care to elaborate on why you consider Second Life a game?

  19. Xpontaneus June 18, 2012 / 9:21 pm

    :-). I consider it as a game because everything is not “real” or even you I can’t get it serious. Virtual Worlds like SL is like a game, it isn’t a social network or I consider SL as a “Social Game”, that’s would be a better definiton. Where in the world avatars can get married, get partner or even can get have babies. In which virtual world you can do that ?. Even some people has pets, I mean not social network like twitter or facebook can do that. Only in game you can do that. So that’s why I consider SL as a game. Some resident’s don’t get serious about that.

  20. Xpontaneus June 18, 2012 / 9:23 pm

    Take just this a example, The Sims is a game and SL is like The Sims, it is not the same thing but similar.

  21. timjohnson June 19, 2012 / 7:41 pm

    Hi Xpontaneus, your views are interesting as some of my students also see SL as a game. May be they only see the parts your see – if you consider it as like the Sims then I can understand why you think it is a game.

    Many people in SL do not engage in the type of activity you describe for them it is work or where they work. For some it is a commercial business, for others a healthcare business, for many it is the education business, for others it is part of their research. All these people take SL very seriously indeed and certainly do not consider it a game.

    Even for some of the people who use SL purely for social interaction, their activities in SL are taken very seriously and they would be very up set to think that others trivialised their lives in SL as a game.

    Yes, you can “use” SL as a game but please remember all those other people who treat SL very seriously.

  22. Xpontaneus June 19, 2012 / 8:34 pm

    Hi Hello Tim, thanks for answer. Actually I take SL seriously but would you consider it to have a “serious” relationship ?. That’s what I mean, what I have seen all the time is that some people feel in love with another resident but some of them don’t take it seriously. Just because they take SL as a “Game” not a serious thing. I would never get a relationship with someone who leave 1000 kilometers far from me. A serious relationship you need to have a person near you not just 1000 kilometers. I see SL as a game and not a serious thing for relationship, other things like Science or studies can be great. But still I think most of the people would get it as a game and not as a serious. Even I always recommend to people to don’t get this so serious because you can hurt yourself.

  23. Mirror World June 19, 2012 / 8:57 pm

    I second that, timjohnson
    One of the words I’m following on the internet is “virtual worlds”. So when ever an article contains that string, I get a notice.

    Over the past year or so, I have seen a big increase in articles about virtual worlds. When I then go an read the article, it often turn out to be about the internet.
    Media and people in general has begun to call the internet, a virtual world.
    Which is isn’t, if you look up the definition.
    This is just to give an example why it is difficult to define, if a virtual world i a game or not.
    When world wide web, is now called a virtuel world too.
    Internet i virtual, and it is a world. But it’s not in 3D (yet) ;-)

    “Where in the world avatars can get married, get partner or even can get have babies”
    You probably already have an account there yourself, already: Facebook.
    You can have a partner (relationship) with mouseclick. You can add all your friends to your family group, if you want.
    And, you profile picture, is per definition, an avatar

    “Even some people has pets”
    On Facebook I have blocked every game since “Farmville”, so don’t know what facebook games people play these, or what facebook pet are hot right now.

    So you can argue that Facebook, Google+, or similar social site is a game.
    Even LinkedIn, if you prefer to use it as a game.

    In my view, SL is not a game, as it has no defined goals or point system.
    But ofcourse it can be used as a game, like first person shooter, or roleplay, if you choose to.

    For me, SL started as a social media. And I called it a game to, in the beginning.
    But over the years, I have realised it’s not so simple.
    For example handicapped can use virtual worlds, Like Second Life to their advantage. Not as a game.
    Just one example of serious use.

    It all depends on how you use it.


  24. timjohnson June 20, 2012 / 9:10 am

    Hi Xpontaneus, yes I agree we all should take more care when online anywhere, whether it’s Twotter, Facebook or SL. One of the advantages of virtual worlds (especially SL) is that the sense of immersion in the world makes it possible to feel quite strong emotions, this is, however also a problem with virtual worlds. It is good to warn people about the strong emotions they might feel.

    I think we will just have to agree to disagree about SL being a game though because, for me, just the chance of feeling strong emotions does not make SL into a game :)

  25. Xpontaneus June 20, 2012 / 9:29 am

    Yes, and I respect your thinkings Tim. But I don’t think all virtualworlds are games, just SL. For example I would never consider Osgrid as a Game, It is a virtualworld for education, etc… but where in other virtual worlds except SL do you see people have virtual babies, pets and even partners ?. I don’t see Twitter or Facebook with an option to have virtual babies, pets or even virtual partners. I don’t see any other social network with that, I just see that games has that.

  26. Xpontaneus June 20, 2012 / 9:10 pm

    Speaking about emotions, I always think that people should not bring their emotions to SL just because later they could be just be disapointed (like when ou lost in a videogame). I still think SL is a social game like The Sims but not so popular that the other one. If there weren’t virtual babies, pets and even to have virtual partners then I would never consider SL as a game but as they bring this things and other like rpg, morpg, etc… then I will always consider it as a game.

  27. Mariis June 21, 2012 / 7:01 am

    Hi again, Xpontaneus. I’m sorry about the late response. Thank you for elaborating! I’d have to agree with Tim and Jimmy, I don’t consider SL a game pr se – mainly because there are no predefined activities, roles or goals for the users, but of course this particular kind of virtual environment can be used for all kinds of activities. The point here is not to reach consensus, but to explore different points of view, so thx again to all of you who have taken the time to participate :-)

  28. Xpontaneus June 21, 2012 / 9:45 am

    I really love this kind of conversation and to all of you. I respect everybody’s thinking. Thanks Mariis for share your thinkings!

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