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Every day, over a million people visit virtual worlds—a figure set to grow over the coming years. What is it that draws them to these imaginary places? What do they do after they've arrived? How can the people who create such worlds—their designers—ensure that players' needs are met? Can they do this while satisfying their own needs, too?

Who Should Read This Book?

This is a book for people who design virtual worlds.

Because of this, it's also a book for people who implement, operate, study, or play virtual worlds.

Because of this, it's also a book for people interested in entertainment, education, creativity, art, society, culture, philosophy, space, architecture, psychology, identity, language, economics, government, theology, drama, literature, or cognition.

Virtual worlds are of the future. If you want to create or understand that future, this is the book for you.


The material presented here is organized such that it begins with concrete facts and moves gradually toward abstract conjecture. As it does so, theories of virtual world play and creation are developed that ultimately demonstrate the validity of virtual world design as an object of study.

Chapter 1: Introduction to Virtual Worlds

What are virtual worlds? Beginning with an historical account of how they came to be where they are today, this chapter moves on to describe the various categories of virtual worlds that exist and what these categories mean for designers. Influences from other art forms are presented to explain some directions virtual world design has taken.

Chapter 2: How to Make Virtual Worlds

This is a relatively short chapter that outlines the development process commonly employed for virtual worlds and the effects this process has on what designers can do. It includes an examination of how virtual worlds are typically implemented and the constraints this implies.

Chapter 3: Players

This major chapter concerns the people who play virtual worlds. Only by fully understanding why people play can designers hope to accommodate these players' needs. It focuses on two important concepts, immersion and identity, and how they can be related using an enhanced “player types” model. It follows with a discussion about community in virtual worlds, and how it fits in with all this.

Chapter 4: World Design

Here, the practical decisions designers must make concerning the creation of virtual worlds are described, with reference to the theory developed in Chapter 3. The various options available at each stage are presented, with explanations as to why designers may or may not want to incorporate them into their creations.

Chapter 5: Life in the Virtual World

In this chapter, the spotlight falls on characters, rather than the players behind them. Various ways to represent character skill, experience, and advancement are discussed, along with different systems for allowing characters to form groups. Combat and crafting activities are described, as are the various “endgames” to which they can lead. The theory of Chapter 3 is mainly used in application here, but it does receive a final extension that makes clear exactly why players do play virtual worlds.

Chapter 6: It's Not a Game, It's a…

This is an academic chapter that shows the design of virtual worlds to be a serious topic of research. By studying what other fields find interesting in virtual worlds, the boundaries of the subject can be ascertained and its worth assessed. Also, insights from research by experts from other disciplines can be picked up by designers and applied directly. The aim of this chapter is credibility: Virtual worlds are not “just a game,” they're something entirely new.

Chapter 7: Toward a Critical Aesthetic

This is another credibility exercise, although in this case it's to defend virtual world designers from their critics within the arena of virtual worlds rather than their critics not involved in virtual worlds. The purpose of this chapter is to justify this statement: Virtual world design is an art form. To do this, it develops a critical aesthetic—a way of extracting meaning from designers' work that frees them to innovate further.

Chapter 8: Coda: Ethical Considerations

This final chapter discusses the morals of virtual world design. It asks plenty of questions, but doesn't provide many answers; the idea is to alert designers to their responsibilities, rather than lecture them about how they should behave.

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