Why Virtual Worlds Can Matter


Thomas, Douglas and John Seely Brown. 2009. Why Virtual Worlds Can Matter. International Journal of Learning and Media 1(1):37-49

Virtual worlds are persistent, avatar-based social spaces that provide players or participants with the ability to engage in long-term, coordinated conjoined action. In these spaces, cultures and meanings emerge from a complex set of interactions among the participants, rather than as part of a predefined story or narrative arc. At least in part, it is the players themselves who shape and to a large extent create the world they inhabit. While many virtual worlds provide the opportunity for that kind of world to emerge, game-based environments such as World of Warcraft or Eve Online illustrate it best because of the intense degree of coordinated action and co-presence among players. This sense of “being with others” and being able to share space, see physical representations of each other, and communicate and act in that shared space provides a very specific set of affordances for players. This article is an effort to trace out and understand those affordances. Or, put differently, it is an effort to understand why virtual worlds, and the avatars that exist inside them, can matter. In that sense, virtual worlds are very similar to other distributed systems, where the whole ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. The World Wide Web, for example, is more than a collection of websites. It is also what emerges out of the collection of and interconnections among the sites that constitute it, producing software or websites that re-imagine what is possible technologically as well as socially. Sites such as MySpace or YouTube are more than just collections of pages or videos, they are communities of interest and in some cases are networks of practice. Shared interests provide a reason for people to come together, while networks of practice provide the technological means to share and create practices.

Doug Thomas
Publication Date
Friday, February 20, 2009