Printable Version of this PageHome PageRecent ChangesSearchSign In

Virtual Worlds & Social Interaction Design

by Mikael Jakobson, Umea University Department of Informatics

Mikael's dissertation was a ten year exploration of virtual worlds, social interaction, and social interaction design. By pursuing an inside view into virtual worlds, meaning he actually participated in them instead of merely observing, he was able to gain valuable insight into what a virtual world is and also how social interaction takes place among the participants. The definition of a virtual world developed is a synchronous multi-user interaction system that offers a persistent environment and graphical representation of participants and objects. Also, the virtual world should not be subordinate to the physical world.

The virtual worlds explored in the dissertation include The Palace, Active Worlds, and Everquest. Each world explored offers a look at the evolution of virtual worlds. Starting at The Palace the world is represented in 2D and text is displayed in text bubbles. Active Worlds moves to a 3D representation and allows users the opportunity to build their own objects. Everquest is again a 3D world, however it is more detailed, and the environment is now a game.

While exploring the worlds his research method consisted heavily of ethnography - the study of human cultures. There are three main ideas covered that I found particularly interesting. The first was the idea of the avatar; the participant graphical representation. The avatars that participants used provided a "mask" they hid behind. People would state that they could be more themselves while in the virtual worlds. The avatars also provided a sense of proximity even when participants were continents apart.

Social status is also influential in virtual worlds. Participants spend huge amounts of time acquiring a reputation and social contacts. This is know as their social capital, which is highly valuable. Participants with a lot of social capital will be respected by the community and it may offer other benefits depending on the world. Real-life social status also has almost no impact on the virtual social status counterpart. Physical wealth or the type of job someone has will not gain a participant more social capital. This idea is known as equalization, as each participant starts at an equal level playing field.

The last idea of interest to me was that virtual items from the worlds are no less real than objects in our physical world. There is real symbolic meaning with these virtual objects and they provide social signs as well. To more fully show the importance of virtual objects, they are even sold in online auctions for physical money.

For the actual discussion of how to design to increase social interaction there was not much concrete material. Social interactive design places the needs for social interaction above other considerations, which is similar to a human-centered approach. In fact Mikael stated the difficulty he experienced when attempting to design worlds to accommodate certain social interactions, such as a lecture/learning hall. He concludes that his work in this area is merely a good building block to continue exploring social interactive design processes.

Overall the dissertation was enjoyable; it was easy to read and understand.. There were some points that troubled me however. The biggest one was that the dissertation took ten years to finish. This seems like an extremely long period of time. There were also numerous grammatical errors, which is understandable as Mikael is not a native English speaker. This did occasionally hurt the flow of the paper.

Perhaps one of the reasons I enjoyed the dissertation was because for a period over ten years ago I took part in a virtual world called The Realm. I can see all of Mikael's examples and descriptions as they relate to my experience. There were social hierarchies, social capital, and a feeling of owning your avatar. I could not go into all of the details of the thesis, but virtual worlds are powerful entities. Players in Asia have been physically killed or have died from starvation. There are virtual marriages that take place and virtual sexual activities. People become so addicted to the virtual world they belong to that they have nicknames such as Evercrack. Perhaps philosophers are correct, the world is really only in our heads.

Last modified 3 December 2007 at 11:01 pm by JeffreyLaMarche