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.

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.