Bill Watts - July 13, 2015
Online worlds, or virtual worlds, have become a major component of the modern internet. An online world is software that a user connects to via the internet where the user creates a persona, or 'avatar', and uses that persona to explore and interact with the electronic environment.
An online world has potentially no boundaries or limits to exploration of its environment, with new content and opportunities often being created by users themselves. This differs from an 'online community' or 'social media website', which are extensions of the real world and limited by design and by a user's actual existence.
An online world is more expansive and immersive than an 'online community', 'social networks', or 'social media website', which are extensions of the real world with limits to what a user can explore. Real world businesses often create online communities to allow customers to interact with each other and provide suggestions and help with product issues, similar to a customer service department. A user on Facebook, a social network, is limited to interacting with their defined list of Facebook Friends. Facebook attempts to become an 'online world' by allowing users to 'like' the pages of famous people or places, but its main focus is on the community. Social media websites such as Reddit or similar discussion boards are intended to be an extension of the real world.
An online world can often be presented in the form of a computer game, often called a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), where a user earns points or rewards and participates in pre-defined activities, such as Ultima Online or World Of Warcraft. These games still qualify as an 'online world' if the game exists in a boundless reality with no conclusion.
An online world has a completely unique society, with history, commerce, and structure. Elements of the online world can sometimes blend into the real world, such as real-world purchasing of items to be used in the online world. An online world and its users can mimic reality, such as Second Life, or they can completely depart from reality and become a fantasy existence. Often, a user interacts with other users in the world, but not always, such as the online world of Minecraft.
The avatar assumed by the user in an online world can closely mimic their actual personality, characteristics, and abilities, or it can be a complete departure from reality. Many characteristics of the actual person are maintained in the online world, such as their likes, beliefs, and prejudices, since these characteristics are essentially impossible for a person to suppress. These characteristics can become even stronger in an online world where the person isn't limited by inhibitions or real-world social expectations. An interesting experiment would involve an online world where a user attempted to ignore their real-world persona, such as a devout Catholic taking on the persona of an atheist in an online world.
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Ready Player One
In the excellent fiction book 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline, the society in the real world has collapsed and many people have chosen to exist primarily in the online world of the Oasis. The Oasis is free and open for all to use. The final edict of its dying creator was that the user that could first complete a major quest in the online world would become owner and controller of the Oasis. For-profit corporations want to take control of the Oasis in order to exploit its massive financial potential, but altruistic individuals strive to ensure that the world remains free for all to use. 'Ready Player One' does an excellent job of exploring the Oasis and comparing it to the real-world dystopia described in the book.
In 'Ready Player One', the education system is handled entirely in the Oasis, with students and teachers interacting in virtual classrooms. This model for education is extremely successful in the Oasis, a model that is being mimicked in real online worlds.
Online worlds are still relatively in their infancy. As technology advances, especially with virtual reality headsets, online worlds will take on a stronger. The Oasis is a great example of an online world that might exist in our own future.