But while these are often lumped together under the rubric of the massively multiplayer online game, many see a clear difference between goal-oriented online games like World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and EverQuest II, and pure virtual worlds like Second Life and There.
Yet, while many players are only hearing of Second Life and There for the first time--as suggested by recent skyrocketing signup numbers--virtual worlds are not a recent development.
In fact, fully 3D social spaces have been around at least since the mid-1980s, and some would argue even longer than that.
With all that in mind, CNET News.com recently invited virtual world historian and DigitalSpace CEO Bruce Damer--who also runs the DigiBarn computer museum in California's Santa Cruz mountains and authored the 1997 book, Avatars--to the CNET bureau in Second Life. There, Damer--known in the virtual world as "Digi Weaver"--shared his personal history with virtual worlds as well as his thoughts on where the environments come from and where they might go.
Q: How did you come to be in the Second Life beta?
Damer: Well, I met Philip Rosedale back in the alpha period. He gave me a great demo of the platform and invited me into the beta. I am kind of a "Gandalf the Grey" of virtual worlds. I've seen all the ages of middle virtual earth.
What is your history with virtual worlds and 3D social spaces?
Damer: Back in 1995 I co-founded an organization called
What was it about those environments that attracted you?
Damer: It was exciting. We held several real-life conferences about virtual worlds and 3D social spaces. The first one was "Earth to Avatars" in 1996. They were ultra cool, with lots of speakers and parties where everyone dressed up as "their (favorite) avatar." The first two we did in San Francisco and then we moved it into cyberspace. We made a virtual conference hall in ActiveWorlds in 1998. It was a blast. We had 4,000 real visitors in-world and 30 nodes around the world. Each year we experimented with different types of spaces. The first one was like a convention center, then we went to connected domes and then we went fully 3D--no gravity--and met in a virtual space station. Then we did a re-enactment of Kubrick's film 2001 in 2001, and middle earth in 2002 for a (JRR) Tolkien-inspired environment.
What was it like to do these things in 1996 when the technology was still so young and unknown?
Damer: It was amazing. People felt they were inventing a brand new medium, the new medium of the 21st century, and they were right. Everything had to run on 28.8 modems which were fast then. I would demo these worlds at conferences and it would blow people away that this was happening. It was like (Neal Stephenson's novel) Snow Crash or Tron or something to them.
What do you consider the first digital virtual world?
Damer: Well that might have to be Maze War in 1974. It had all the features: multi-user, different points of view, 3D graphics, bots, chat, IM, shooting and scoring. It was more of a game than a social virtual world, but it was still the first avatar space. Maze War was ported to a dozen platforms after the first one and played across the Arpanet in the 70s. It was famous. You can still play it today.