What is a Virtual World?

What is a Virtual World?
(submitted as a short paper, 2013)

The University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Virtual Worlds defines a virtual world as being an “imaginary place synthesized inside a computer where individuals looking at the monitor can feel as if they are in a real world or a fantasy world” (Curtis, 2013, para 1). Indeed, a virtual world is an interactive, 3-dimensional digital representation of a real or imagined place. Avatars – representations of individuals (both human and computer-controlled) – “inhabit” virtual worlds and interact with each other or objects within this environment.

Blascovich and Bailenson (2011) explore the concept of reality-based perception and argue that we create our own reality from our perceptions and imagination. “Virtual reality,” they argue, “is just an exercise in manipulating these perceptions” (pg 14). To this end, some can argue that a book, a photograph, or interactive theater could promote the perception of one being in a virtual world simply by stimulating the imagination.

So – is a virtual world purely technologically-based? Or is it based purely on the imagination and how the mind defines its perceptions? I contend that a virtual world combines the elements of both. My definition of a virtual world is: A 3-dimensional, immersive environment, delivered by a computer, that allows one to experience reality as it is defined by one’s own mind.

As reality is perceived by each person differently, opinions of whether or not something is a virtual world can vary. Some people might place the highly-immersive, beautifully-designed game Myst in the category of “virtual world” since the interactivity and presence they feel in this environment satisfies their definition of perceived reality. Others might define their reality largely based on social needs. Lacking interactivity with other people, Myst might appear, to them, as just a beautifully-designed, lonely game. This difference in perception as to the actual definition of “reality” makes defining the term “virtual world” a challenging one, but also an organic one. As technology advances and our expectations change, I expect the definition of a virtual world will change as well.

Those who accept a virtual environment as a form of reality often produce examples of how these environments can affect people, psychologically and physiologically. In 1996 at the Harborview Burn Center in Seattle, Washington, Hunter Hoffman, David Patterson, and Sam Sherar experimented with the use of virtual reality and its reduction of pain in burn patients. In his article for Scientific American, Hoffman (2004) marveled at the reductions in pain that were reported by the participants while they were immersed in a virtual world. Brain scans revealed that there was an actual physiological change that took place in each person as he or she adopted the virtual environment as perceived reality. After several trials, Hoffman et al. have determined that the use of a virtual world in pain management could be a viable alternative to drug therapy. On the psychological side of things, my own experience of giving a presentation “in-world” led to very real feelings of anxiety and panic. Friends have often commented on the embarrassment they feel if they appear in a “virtually public place” and their clothes have not quite made it on to their virtual bodies. Many of the comments on the Second Life forums give the impression of anger felt among “residents” when new laws take effect in that world. I have witnessed marriages and divorces thanks to the effect virtual worlds have on relationships. And I have met some of my now-best friends in Second Life – and have extended my virtual world to my “real” one by vacationing with them “in person.”

So, what is a virtual world? I can tell you what it is not: It is not artificial, nor imaginary, nor fantasy. One does not simply “look” at a monitor and experience a virtual world. A virtual world is not pure imagination since it can physically affect those who chose to immerse themselves into it. Instead, it is a technological playground for the mind – and is very real – for those who wish to perceive it as such.


Blascovich, J., & Bailenson, J. (2011). Infinite reality: The hidden blueprint of our virtual lives. New York: HarperCollins.

Curtis, A. (2013). What is a virtual world? Retrieved from http://www.uncp.edu/home/acurtis/NewMedia/CenterForTheStudyOfVirtualWorlds/CenterForTheStudyOfVirtualWorlds.html

Hoffman, H. (2004, August). Virtual reality therapy. Scientific American. Retrieved from http://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/vrpain/index_files/SCIAMFin.pdf


Side Note: A great majority of this answer was written by my avatar, I mean “me”, I mean… inworld. As my perception of reality places me firmly in the virtual world and defines it as very real, I thought I’d include a picture of me at work: