The Virtual Worlds of Video Games

Video games provide a very logical and convenient platform for virtual worlds. This is due to the fact that the user interface of video games usually consists of 2D or 3D rendered worlds and environments inhabited by character models. Conveniently, virtual worlds involve anthropomorphic avatars inhabiting a digitally created space, which can be perfectly transformed to the videogame format/medium.

Creating a World of Warcraft Character

One of the most common types of videogames that is entirely dependent upon virtual worlds is the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, or MMORPG. A role-playing game is one in which players assume the role of a character in a physical setting, which is often fantastical in nature. In the open-ended environment, players make decisions and develop their characters to their liking while progressing through a story. Immediately it is clear how RPGs in general cater to virtual worlds, because an avatar of sorts is a necessary element of these games. But single player RPGs don’t quite satisfy the other requirements of a virtual world, including interaction. This is where MMORPGs come in: A subgenre of RPGs, they also involve a large number of players interacting in an online persistent world that continues to exist even after a player has exited the game. Since these virtual worlds can be so difficult to maintain, developers often charge subscription fees for massively multiplayer online games in order to cover the cost of hosting the servers.

Two examples of popular MMORPGs include World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2. While the former takes place in a typical fantasy environment and involves selectable races such as orcs, humans, and dwarves, the latter offers professions of Warrior, Monk, Elementalist, Ranger, Necromancer and Mesmer. Through games like these, users are allowed to adopt an online persona and live vicariously through their avatar, starting from the initial class selection. Each subsequent decision they make in how they customize their character can be a reflection of their own personality and serves to identify them in the gargantuan virtual environment.

Guild Wars Avatars

They base their decisions on how they wish to appear to other users whom they encounter online, much like how we dress and act in a way that reflects how we wish to appear to others in the real world. Transcending social interaction through the virtual/real divide, MMORPGs in particular raise interesting questions: Is it a waste to invest so much time to something other than our “real” world? Is virtual socialization and interaction a sufficient substitution for real-life communities?

While video games still represent a huge share of today's virtual worlds, we can see a definite trend in the increase of non-gaming environments. Specifically, we have seen virtual worlds play a dominant role in business, education, and social networking. Gaming itself has been following this trend by including elements of virtual worlds to non-gaming components of their services. In fact, we can find examples of non-gaming virtual worlds on the two major current generation video game platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3.

In the early stages of Xbox Live (Xbox’s online service), Microsoft simply allowed users to select a gamertag (a name to which your account was linked) and a small gamerpicture which would be displayed next to your gamertag. Users were could add their friends to a maintained friends list, and voice and text chat was available to interact with these people.

Examples of Celebrity XBOX Avatars

This was in 2002, and since then things have changed greatly. In order to follow recent trends of virtual worlds, Microsoft overhauled the Xbox Live community to include customizable avatars. Now, instead of seeing a list of your friends based on their textual gamertag, you simply see your friends (as they choose to represent themselves by their avatars). The avatars are highly customizable and users are actually able to purchase or unlock clothing and accessories to show off to their friends.

Playstation Network is the online service run by Sony for their gaming console. The virtual world component of PSN takes the form of their Playstation Home service. Essentially a virtual 3D social gaming network, Home offers users the chance to “live” in the hub. The avatars and personal spaces are extremely realistic and give the feel of a life simulator.

Playstation Avatars are much more realistic

You can customize your personal space to your liking and have friends visit these spaces or visit theirs. Home also allows for random interaction by simply walking around the hub and encountering individuals, giving it the true feel of a living virtual world. Sony even went to the extent of including virtual movie theaters in their Home service so that people can join their family and friends’ avatars and enjoy watching videos together.