Although sl has been around for over ten years – and even before then there were fledgling virtual worlds to be found, right back to the original MUDs and MOOs of the late 70s and early 80s – we nevertheless think of virtual worlds as being a pretty modern innovation; however, that is certainly not the case. Virtual worlds have been around much, much longer than we tend to imagine.
Most of us equate ‘virtual’ with computers, but is that strictly correct? Let’s consider one of many possible definitions of the word virtual, by which we might see the error of that way of thinking:
Virtuality: the quality of having the attributes of something without sharing its (real or imagined) physical form.
On that basis, i must have participated in and contributed to virtual worlds for the best part of my life. As a child, i had a huge box of Lego – sadly never enough though – with which i created many and varied virtual representations of reality, both real and imagined. With those plastic bricks i built palaces and castles, towns and factories, beasts and all kinds of imaginary scenarios. Enthralled and engrossed in my creations: those representations of the world both around me and in my head, and painstakingly created from those colourful building blocks weren’t so far removed from today’s Minecraft, although they were a lot more tactile.
Then there were the books… the folk of the Faraway Tree; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; the Discworld and The Hobbit, all gateways to other worlds that drew me in and made me feel as much a participant in the fiction i was reading as i was in the less compelling story of everyday life. All of which, of course, leads us to that most compelling of mediums – the cinema: those films that we love to watch, quote and recount – every one of them a window into a fictional world that looks and sounds like the real thing – or for that matter a totally imaginary one – but is in fact entirely virtual.
At this juncture, you might want to make the point that none of those particular vehicles of escapism demonstrate that other defining characteristic of what we understand to be virtual worlds – the collaborative, community nature of environments like sl, but i’m afraid i’d have to disagree. Simply because a book or a film lacks the element of shared space common to sl and those platforms like it, doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t classify it as a virtual world. If we return to the definition i gave earlier, there’s nothing that states virtuality must be a shared experience, indeed if you were to build your own grid identical in every way to sl, but without the shared user experience, that makes it no less a virtual world. Neither is size a determining factor – a world can exist entirely inside our own minds, on within the words on a single sheet of paper – it doesn’t have to be all-encompassing or boast a population of any number… a world devoid of life is still a world.
Consider the pantheon of virtual worlds through the ages: computer simulations, movies, books, paintings and sculpture, models and toys, stories told over campfires and painted on cave walls; sl and platforms of its kind are just another manifestation of humankind’s desire to both replicate and escape from reality, and when we accept that simple fact we must also accept that it is nothing special, nothing earth-shattering or world-changing: it’s just another way in which we seek to make sense of our world and our place in it.
Well, maybe i am wrong about that. All those years ago, when i spent many happy hours delving through my box of Lego for that specific brick i needed to complete my masterpiece, it was special. The countless hours i’ve lost myself in books, been engrossed in movies, been caught up in the action unfolding on the stage, or – yes – fooling about in sl have been special for many and varied reasons. More than anything, it’s able to employ our imagination and our ability to suspend belief and enter into the reality of virtuality that make it more than it might appear from the outside.
Virtual worlds have been around for a very long time indeed… and, whatever form they might take in the future, they’re here to stay.
Stars in your eyes little one
Where do you go to dream?
To a place we all know
The land of make believe
Bucks Fizz – The Land Of Make Believe