Virtual World – a working definition

A favourite book of mine on the topic of “virtual” is Anne Friedberg‘s “The Virtual Window – from Alberti to Microsoft” in which she explores the window as metaphor, as architectural component, and as an opening to dematerialized reality. In the first chapter, Friedberg sets out to define “virtual” because “in the glare of a jargon-ridden present, the term “virtual” may have lost its descriptive power”, and she hopes “to reclaim its considerable utility for making distinctions about the ontological status – and materiality – of an object” (Friedberg, 2006, p. 7).

To start off her endeavour, Friedberg presents the following definition from Webster’s (1993) Third New International Dictionary Unabridged:

“Virtual (Latin, virtus, for strength or power) of, relating to, or possessing a power of acting without the agency of matter; being functionally or effectively but not formally of its kind.”

Subsequently, Friedberg (ibid. p. 8-11) makes the following points that I found of particular interest:

  • The virtual is a substitute – “acting without agency of the matter” – an immaterial proxy for the material.
  • “Virtual” refers to the register of representation itself – but representation can be either simulacral (with no referent in the real) or mimetic.
  • The term “original” and “copy” do not apply, because virtuality does not imply direct mimesis, but a transfer – more like a metaphor – from one plane of meaning to another.
  • A “virtual” object has a materiality and a reality but of a different kind, a second-order materiality, liminally immaterial.

Friedberg further explains that for the purpose of her study: “the term “virtual” serves to distinguish between any representation or appearance (whether optically, technologically, or artisanally produced) that appears “functionally or effectively, but not formally” of the same materiality of what it represents.” (ibid. p.11)

It’s important to notice that Friedberg mentions different production forms, which of course highlights her point that “virtual” doesn’t apply to technology mediated objects and experiences only.

In the inaugural 2008 issue of The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, which also includes reprints of earlier writings considered seminal to the field, six of 17 papers offer explicit attempts to define “virtual worlds”, and at least two of the authors (Bittarello & Damer) also consider literary worlds (i.e. The Garden of Eden and Dante’s Inferno) to be “virtual worlds”.

Based on this and a bunch of other readings, I’ve decided to use the following quite simple working definition:

“Virtual World” =df “Any representation of a world that appears functionally or effectively, but not formally of the same materiality as the world it represents.”

Through this definition, the only thing we learn about “virtual worlds” is that they are of a different materiality than the ones they represent. And from this follows that if we want to know more about a particular “virtual world”, we need to add more to the definiendum i.e. 3D, computer-based, social etc.

I see some advantages:

  • The essence of “virtual world” refers to materiality and does not imply an inherent quality difference other than form
  • It’s possible to honour/include the history of “virtual worlds”
  • It’s possible to include both game-based and non-game based worlds – cf. the differences between Bartle and Ondrejka on the concept of “virtual worlds”
  • It’s possible to specify what isn’t a “virtual world” – a virtual representation that doesn’t refer to a world materiality
  • When talking about “virtual worlds” it’s necessary to specify what type of “virtual world” we are referring to in order to avoid confusion and ambiguity

Nonetheless, I still prefer to call it a “working” definition, because there are some important issues to consider:

  • I’m considering whether or not to include something about production/media forms – cf. Friedberg’s definition.
  • A definition must not be circular; it shouldn’t include the word to be defined. I have used the word “world” twice, but because the definition is about representation I think it’s hard not to include …
  • I’m wondering if a representation has “no referent in the real” is it then possible to talk about “the same materiality of what it represents”? Some “virtual worlds” are purely imaginary worlds that don’t exist in the real, do they then have a materiality, do they re-present?

I definitely need to consult with some of my philosophical friends on this! Meanwhile, I’m investigating different “virtual world” typologies and they provide another fruitful perspective on the concept …


Also check out The Virtual Window Interactive

Inspired by Friedberg’s account of Alberti, I’ve previously written about the window metaphor in SL in relation to remediation.

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