A Virtual Worlds Primer

Introduction

This section of the Virtual Worlds Primer provides an overview  – what virtual worlds are, what they are used for and who uses them.

Virtual worlds are simulated environments on the internet, accessed via a computer and sometimes mobile phone. They are persistent, shared experiences for tens of millions of people around the globe.

There are three basic kinds of virtual world: games, social worlds and world building tools. While the technology for all three types is similar, each has a different range of uses and different user demographics. People of all ages around the world use virtual worlds. Some are targeted at specific age ranges, such as Club Penguin which is 6+ and Second Life which is 18+. However, World of Warcraft and other virtual worlds appeal to people from their mid-teens through to retirement.

From their invention in 1978 at the University of Essex, virtual worlds have grown steadily in popularity. Globally, the number of users of virtual worlds is now in the hundreds of millions, with several individual virtual worlds reporting figures over the 10 million mark. And these users are spending between two and four hours in a virtual world every day, often sacrificing television viewing time to do so.

Business models for virtual worlds include: subscription fees, micro-transactions, and advertising supported worlds – including fully branded spaces such as Virtual MTV (vMTV). Within game worlds, complex economies thrive on the redistribution of virtual resources by individual users. Social worlds in particular find the users embedding traditional business models into the virtual world by offering goods and services such as marketing and design of virtual objects for real currency.

The commercial use of virtual worlds is increasing rapidly, especially in the market segment aimed at children. Many well-known brands have either launched or announced a virtual world. Examples include Barbie, Hello Kitty and novel brands such as StarDoll. Broader brands are also making use of virtual worlds. While much attention has focused on activity within Second Life, there is widespread use of branding in virtual spaces such as CosmoGIRL! within There.com, sub-branding of things like Pepsi within vMTV, and star appearances in Habbo Hotel.

Virtual worlds are increasingly being used in education and training as well. Many universities around the world now use Second Life and other virtual spaces to deliver classes. Companies such as Forterra Systems are specialising in virtual ‘simulation’ spaces.

Users of virtual worlds often see themselves as members of legitimate communities in their own right. As virtual worlds grow and persist potentially over decades, the implications of such claims are becoming more pressing. In the short-term future, we will see an expansion in the number and range of virtual worlds and a blurring of the boundaries with other forms of social media and augmented reality. The increase in the number of users shows no sign of slowing.

The complete text of this primer is available in posts on the Virtual Policy Network website, or it can be read offline by downloading the entire content at once using the link below.

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(What are Virtual Worlds?)
A PDF version of this complete primer is available for download.
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