Primer: What types of virtual world are there?

For clarity and the sake of comparison, our Primer splits virtual worlds into three types: game, social and tools. This section looks in detail at each of these types of virtual world.

Game and social worlds have a history going back to 1978 when the first virtual world called MUD (at the time a text-only world) was developed in the UK by Bartle and Trubshaw.

Game Worlds

Game worlds such as, EvE, EverQuest, Final Fantasy, Lineage, Lord of the Rings, Maple Story, World of Warcraft, and hundreds of others are virtual spaces created for the purpose of gameplay. While game worlds have been around for nearly 30 years, and growing in size steadily  it is over the last 5 years that they have seen an increase in media attention and a more rapid growth in popularity with Blizzard’s World of Warcraft reporting around 10 million subscribers and Asian games such Maple Story reporting up to 40 million registered avatars.

Common structure

Game worlds tend to have a common underlying structure, with puzzles and challenges similar to other video games. Players’ characters (represented in game by an ‘avatar’) progress up through a level system of some form where higher levels give them more power in the context of the game. Typically, avatars will have characteristics such as: race (e.g. elf); a type or class (e.g. warrior or mage); skills (e.g. armour making or alchemy) and a level (often ranging from 1 to 60 or 70). Players generally take several months to reach these higher levels and then retain their game accounts for a number of years.

Activity within game worlds is often centred on quests. These are in-game tasks that typically involve travelling across the virtual world and defeating a foe, solving a challenge or delivering something. For completing a challenge players are usually rewarded with experience (known as xp (experience points), accumulating xp is what increases a character’s level) and virtual items and / or currency. As players progress up the levels, these quests get ever more complex and often require large groups working together in real-time. The so-called end-game of World of Warcraft involves quests requiring up to 40 people and a week of regular, highly coordinated effort.

Many game worlds also allow players to fight against each other in so-called PVP (player vs player) as opposed to PVE (player vs environments). In some games this is at a large scale enabling large groups of players to battle against each other. EvE Online is different from most game worlds in that it has no levels as such and few game rules, but from this a highly complex large scale system of war has emerged typified by battles between player groups that can number in the hundreds, preparation for which may take months.

Social complexity

The technical and social complexity of this aspect of virtual worlds often eludes non-players, who tend to see just a screen that looks like any other video game. To appreciate what is going on, imagine trying to organize an online event where at least 40 people must attend simultaneously in order to complete a complex task requiring a high degree of specialisation and co-ordinated action, yet the leader has no direct management control over any individual. Moreover, team members may be spread across multiple time zones and have personal or sub-group political agendas. What’s more the group leader’s day job may be working on a cash register.

In conjunction with event-based organizations, players of game worlds form ‘guilds’ (often given other terms such as ‘corporations’ in EvE Online or Blood Pledge in Lineage.) Guilds can be large organizations with hundreds of members based all over the real world. So-called über-guilds now span many games and a number have attracted sponsorship deals. For many people, being part of a guild is integral to their enjoyment of the game. Indeed, guild duties can become more important than playing the game itself. Guilds typically have websites and mark their achievements with photos and stories.


While, in the main, commercially successful game worlds follow the men-in-tights quest formula, the game world market is much like that of film, with both blockbusters and indie productions. World of Warcraft is by far a blockbuster, while something like A Tale in the Desert  (ATITD) is more of an indie as an MMO that replaces combat with community building, art, flower breeding and marriage. It is largely developed and maintained by two people and sustains a community of around 2,000 users.  Yet another variation on the model is the so-called Massively Casual Multiplayer Game, which combines casual mini-games with an overall game structure, Three Rings is a pioneer of this type of game with titles such as Puzzle Pirates and Bang! Howdy.

Due to the relatively low cost of production there is also a thriving community of text world creators and users. In fact there are far more txt worlds that graphical ones though there is a smaller player base. Iron Realms Entertainment, for instance, runs a number of commercial txt games such as Achaea.

Social Worlds

Technically, social worlds share the same surface characteristics as game worlds. They are 2.5D or 3D persistent environments with avatars and real-time communication. However, social worlds have no overarching game built into the structure of the world. They may have a lot of playful aspects and sometimes mini-games within them, but avatars tend not to have characteristics such as classes or character levels.

Social worlds can be thought of as chat rooms or discussion groups with space, though the world-like and permanent nature of social worlds means that a much more complex community develops around them than one sees on message based systems such as Instant Messenger.

Activity in social worlds tends to centre on events, fashion and interpersonal relationships. Events may be generated by the world publisher or user-created such as parties where music might be streamed live by a DJ. Fashion extends to all aspects of the world, particularly rooms (in 2.5D spaces) or houses (in 3D ones) and avatar appearance and clothing. The rapid turnover of fashion is one of the key drivers behind the economy of social worlds. Using micro-transactions, this sustains both virtual world publishers and, in spaces such as Second Life, businesses based on user-created content. Given the almost instantaneous transfer of goods and the trivial sum-per-transaction, the turnover of fashions in virtual spaces can be bewilderingly fast. Social-world users also spend a great deal of time nurturing friendships and negotiating personal politics, including cybersex.

Unlike game worlds, social worlds tend not to have structures such as guilds. However, many social worlds support a range of grouping tools allowing users to talk with groups of friends using in-world instant messenger.

World building tools

The increase in popularity of virtual worlds has given rise to a market for world-building tools. These technologies allow a wider variety of companies and individuals to create their own virtual worlds. Some toolkits like Sun’s Project Dark Star provide the fundamental technical libraries to build virtual worlds such as’s Mekana Technologies which then go on to customise a version of their virtual world for specific customers such as MTV. Between these two extremes is a range of platforms that give professionals, hobbyists, academics and those interested in training and education a jump-start in world creation. Such platforms include Multiverse, BigWorld and Hero Engine.


As with any taxonomy there are things that fall outside it. One set of virtual worlds that are hard to categorize in the terms above are ‘adult’ virtual worlds – that is, virtual worlds targeted at direct or indirect sexual gratification. Such a set would include worlds such as: Sociolotron a game world with a strong emphasis on various forms of sexual fetish; and Red Light Centre a world centred on pornography, cybersex and dating. There are also a number of worlds based on the ‘furry’ subculture – which includes, though is not exclusively, a sexual (sub)-subculture.

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