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An Account of 'Virtual Worlds'

Updated on March 5, 2014

Before you begin reading this hub I feel a little back ground information is in order. When the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came out I was blown away. I spent much of my actual life investing in a non-existent version of myself in a non-existent world. Watching his story develop in direct in-proportion to my own. After a particularly isolated weekend in which I racked up 38 hours game play (out of 48 hours) I started to ask myself why I was doing it? The sociologist in me then forced me into the vast expanses of knowledge within the university’s library. I have stream-lined that into this account of virtual worlds...

This sociological account of virtual worlds (VWs) contains a range of different aspects of VWs that are not fixed to a specific existent VW. It details how definitions of ‘virtual worlds’ are created, used and which can be assessed as more useful. The importance of the creation of the virtual character or virtual ego, also referred to as an ‘avatar’. The relationship between the individual and their avatar, the relationships and interactions between avatars and the importance of expressions. Finally, how the virtual worlds are used by individuals.

The key issue that must be addressed before trying to create a sociological account is the importance of accurately define that of a ‘virtual world’. Within the sociological community there is no fixed definition and indeed much debate within about exactly what a virtual world is. Bartles refers to a virtual world as that of ‘an environment that its inhabitants regard as being self-contained. It doesn't have to mean an entire planet’ (Bartle, 2004) . In a sense what Bartles refers to here simply isn’t fixed enough as there is no mention of its existence within a computer, or network. A more developed idea than Bartles in that of Koster’s definition; ‘depiction of a virtual environment, which can be experienced by numerous participants at once, who are represented within the space by avatars’ (Koster, 2004). The importance of this definition is the emphasis on the representation of self but still fails to mention the where and how the world exists, i.e. within a computer, server or other technology. Castronova refines these ideas further within ‘Synthetic Worlds’ referring to a ‘crafted places inside computers that are designed to accommodate large numbers of people’ (Castronova, 2004). Here Catronova draws on what of the most important factors of a good definition, that of the existence of this world within technology. Even without the mention of definitions proposed by technical professionals or the various media outlets, mainly out of practicality, it is still difficult to pin down exactly what is meant. An amalgamation of the three would be most suited but within each different area of study within virtual worlds sociologists have redefined it many times. This is usually to fit with their own research or theory, making it difficult to remain coherent while referring to multiple works.

As Koster states, one of the most important aspects of virtual worlds is how the individual creates their character, or ‘avatars’ as they are known. In her book ‘The Ideal Elf: Identity Exploration in World of Warcraft’ Bessière explores how people construct their avatars in the massive multi-player online role playing game(MMORPG) ‘World of Warcraft’. Within the MMORPG players are able to interact with millions of others and create their own character from many different races and classes, picking gender, hair colour etc. the player also must construct an the ideas of the character, what they stand for, their path of action etc.. Bessière argues that ‘through a constructed character, can enact aspects of his or her ideal self—the physical or psychological self the player wishes to be’ (Katherine Bessiere, 2007). So for example a young person creates an avatar whom is strong and more adventurous than they themselves are, an older player creates a character that has all potential for achievement they had when they were younger. In Second Life (an MMORPG) Carla has chosen a body quite a bit prettier than her real body’ (Castronova E. , 2007). The player sees the character as themselves, a chance to correct their inadequacies with a sort of reset button. A player can invest months, or even years, into their avatar and, as such, gets attached to them, ‘players do not perceive the game (main) character as a social entity distinct from themselves, but experience a merging of their own self and the game protagonist’ (Christoph Klimmt, 2009). The existence of such a relationship between the individual, within the ‘real’ world, and the avatar, within the virtual world, shows how character creation is an important part of the emersion that allows the player to create and experience the virtual world. ‘At a very basic level bodies root us, and make us present to ourselves and others’ (Schroeder, 2002).

Although character creation is an important aspect of the individuals experience and their interactions the way in which they actually communicate is far more important. In his work ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ Goffman’s concept of ‘facework’ has been one of the key building blocks of sociological study of interactions. However, the concept, arguably, no longer applies when within the realms of virtual worlds. People are hidden from the view of those they interact with, however, unlike a phone conversation we can still see ‘them’(their avatar). With the introduction, within many MMORPGs, of emotive expressions, such as laughter, dancing, shrugs etc., the individuals you interact with can lie to you virtual face. However, the view could also be taken that a good liar in person can do the same and the existence of emotive expressions within VWs continues the existence of all of Goffman’s concepts of interaction.

Both the act of managing a character’s appearance and controlling how they interact with the world and others echoes that of Goffman’s (1959) concepts of ‘front-stage’ and ‘back-stage’. The ‘front-stage’ is that of the avatar and the ‘back-stage’ is that of the actual individuals. unlike many other fields the maintenance that goes on between the two is clear to see simply by comparing the profile of the individual and the profile of their avatar. However, it can be argued that they stand ‘betwixt and between, both in and not in real life’ (Turkle, 1994). That there is no definable difference as the individual spends the time in real world still existing and continuing to act.

Following on from how people interact and exist within virtual worlds it is important to assess the amount of time individuals spend within these virtual worlds ‘existing’ and interacting. ‘many people used the term 'addiction' to describe their own behavior’(Castronova E. , 2007) when referring to their time commitment to VWs. Their existence within the VW and the attachment, and investment, they have to their avatar trumps that of any commitments within the real world. ‘The virtual reality becomes not so much an alternative as a parallel life’ (Turkle, 1994). A life where the player finds a completely different almost therapeutic. Is the ‘life’ and development of their online avatar actually effecting their ability to grow and develop their real self?

When looking at sociology’s contribution to the field of virtual worlds it is clear that it a large and ever evolving body of sociology. Perhaps what it lacks is specific sub sections, after all there are many types of VW and to expect one theory to apply to all is difficult to fulfil. The general inability, as with much sociology, to come up with a fixed working definition is a major flaw of this school of sociology. Inability to decide what is and what is not a virtual world leads to all kinds of problems when finding coherent theories and accounts without sticking to just one author. A problem that needs to be addressed to come to a better understanding of the use of virtual worlds is why people use them. When researching it is clear that a lot of the text is either the work of Castronova or born from and referencing his original ideas. His work seems to be based on the premise that virtual worlds will eventually grow to a point where they are equal, or even take over, to real society because of his believes as an economist, not a sociologists, ignoring cultural reactionary factors to this develop and other such forces. Arguably, going against what Bauman (2001) stated sociology is about with regards to responsible speech. Much of the work in general, ‘respected’ work anyway, is dated. With any other area of sociology this isn’t usually a problem but within virtual worlds it seems to be. Because of the ever expanding nature of virtual worlds, and the variations within that very field, as the technology and the market advances keeping up becomes a colossal task. The actions of the participants seem to be seen as negative, particularly sociologists whom are more invested in social psychological or economic explanations. I personally refuse to see the use of virtual worlds as negative and it has been difficult to find reading that agrees.

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Bartle, R. (2004). Designing virtual worlds. Indianapolis : IN: New Riders Publishing.

Castronova, E. (2001). Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier. The Gruter Institute Working Papers on Law, Economics, and Evolutionary Biology, 2-68.

Castronova, E. (2004). Synthetic Worlds. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Castronova, E. (2007). Exodus to the virtual world: how online fun is changing reality. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

Christoph Klimmt, D. H. (2009). The Video Game Experience as ‘‘True’’ Identification: A Theory of Enjoyable Alterations of Players’ Self-Perception. 351-373.

Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor Books.

Katherine Bessiere, M. A. (2007). The Ideal Elf: Identity Exploration in World of Warcraft. CYBERPSYCHOLOGY & BEHAVIOR Volume 10, Number 4.

Koster, R. (2004, jan 7). A virtual world by any other name? Retrieved November 1, 2011, from Terra Nova:

Schroeder, R. (2002). The Socail Life of Avatars: presence and interaction in shared virtual enviroments. London: Springer-Verlag London Limited.

Turkle, S. (1994). Constructions and reconstructions of self in virtual reality: Playing in the MUDs. Mind, Culture, and Activity , 158-167.

Z. Bauman T. May. (2001). Thinking Sociologically. Blackwell.


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    • Mike McMinn profile image

      Mike McMinn 

      4 years ago from New Zealand

      Their is a brave new world our there that has not been studied enough in my view. The impact of virtual reality of us poor humans is going to be big. With the release of VR headsets such as Oculus Rift these benefits and problems will start to become more prevalent. Excellent article with subjects I hadn't considered. The ego around avatars really made me think.


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