A virtual world is an animated three-dimensional world created with computer graphics imagining (CGI) and other rendering software. One of the hallmarks of such a world is that a user can interact within the environment by virtue of an avatar, or a computerized character that represents the user. The avatar manipulates and interacts with objects in the world by mouse movements and keystrokes issued by the user. In simple terms, the avatar is a remote controlled character or proxy.
In addition to graphics, a virtual world also provides sound effects and may offer streaming sound for listing to music, radio or scripts issuing from within the virtual environment. In multiplayer games and environments, chat and instant messaging allow avatars to communicate with each other in the world.
There are two basic genres of virtual worlds: those created for gaming, and those created for their own sake as virtual communities. Though they share many similarities in terms of rendering ability, they are created for two distinct purposes. Gaming worlds are inhabited by antagonists the hero must defeat and provides a built-in objective for the user to achieve in order to conquer the game. Virtual communities, on the other hand, are places where the user decides what he or she wants to do. The avatar’s role in this world can be as passive or as active and creative as the user wishes.
Gaming world or virtual community, there is no doubt that gaming paved the way to virtual worlds. Wolfenstein 3D, released in 1992, was the first game that offered a mesmerizing first-person three-dimensional experience. This provided a stepping-stone to the more complex worlds created in later games such as Doom (1993) and Quake (1996).
In these initial forays into a virtual setting, the user’s point of view was that of the avatar’s, seeing only the tip of the weapon extending into the forefront of the screen. In some cases, the avatar’s face was a semi-animated mug shot in a toolbar that changed expressions depending on the user’s actions. Some first-person shooter games continue to follow this style.
The avatars of virtual communities are fully rendered characters that can be completely personalized. Avatars walk, run or fly through rich environments ranging from forests of swaying trees to pounding surf and underwater sea life. Homes, businesses, clubs, art galleries and shopping malls are created in the virtual world, inhabited and explored by interacting avatars. Some worlds replicate sections of real-world famous cities, while other virtual landscapes allow residents to take creative license to build bizarre floating temples with cascading water fountains, neon weeping willow gardens, marble castles and rotating art plazas. The virtual world might also offer interactive classes, dances, club memberships and any number of other activities.
While the multibillion dollar gaming industry is well-established, virtual world communities like Second Life are just getting started, comparatively speaking. Second Life’s founding company, Linden, Inc., purportedly earned 64 million US dollars in 2005 — quite impressive considering a basic account is free. Though hardcore gamers may find it a little awkward to inhabit a world that does not have a ready-made purpose — much less a pursuing brain-eating goblin coaxing them onward — a different sect is finding the virtual world a strangely compelling and addictive place to explore and hang out. In time, such communities might even incorporate real-world goods and services, taking interactive shopping, customer support, education, and participation-by-proxy in directions few have yet considered.