Primer: What are virtual worlds?

Everyone who talks about virtual worlds seems to mean something different by the term, so we’ll start out this Primer by outlining what we mean by the term. We’ll also lay out the taxonomic system we use when making distinctions between the different kinds of virtual worlds.


For the purposes of this report, virtual worlds are defined as online environments having the following characteristics :

  • A shared and persistent environment
  • Interactions occurring in real-time
  • An underlying automated rule set, the ‘physics’ that determines how individuals effect changes
  • Individuals are represented within the world typically as individual ‘avatars’

Using this definition, things such as Second Life and World of Warcaft are both virtual worlds, whereas forums, Web 2.0 applications like Facebook, and IM clients (even those built around a room metaphor such as IMVU) are not counted. Also not counted in this report are games with online modes and ranking systems such as Microsoft’s Xbox LIVE, though Sony’s “Home” for PlayStation 3 users may fall into the virtual world category. This report also excludes online games like Kingdom of Loathing and Massively Multiplayer Pong as they fail the definition above.


Some reports make a separation between virtual worlds and MMORPG’s (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games – MMORPG’s or MMO’s for short). This report does not use that distinction; rather it adopts the following classification.

Virtual worlds can be of the following types:

  • Game worlds: World of Warcraft, EvE Online, Lord of the Rings Online, EverQuest
  • Social worlds: Second Life, Habbo Hotel, Virtual MTV, Club Penguin
  • World-building tools: Multiverse, Project Darkstar, OLIVE

While education and training may be seen as missing categories in this classification, they are intentionally excluded as they are actually a way of using either world building tools or existing social worlds.

Users treat each type of virtual world very differently, setting up important implications for policy. For example, an educational virtual world set up as a game world would make different demands on the legal system than one set up as a social world.

Similarly, so-called ‘mirror worlds’ – those that mirror the physical world in some way e.g. Metaversum’s Twinity – are seen as just one type of the existing categories because mirror worlds can be games, social spaces or tools.

What virtual worlds look like

Typically, virtual worlds today are 3D environments where users can position their view at any angle.

Virtual worlds developed a number of years ago – and many contemporary ones targeting the youth market – use what is known as a “2.5 D” or “isometric” view, where the user’s point of view remains at a fixed angle. These worlds also tend to use a much simpler graphical style.

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(Who uses Virtual Worlds)
A PDF version of this complete primer is available for download.
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