The necessity of supporting more and more social interaction (and not only mere information sharing) in online environments is the disruptive force upon which phenomena ascribed to the Web2.0 paradigm continuously bud. People interacting in online socio-technical environments mold technology to their needs, seamlessly integrating it into their everyday life. MUVEs (Multi User Virtual Environments) are no exception and, in several cases, represent a new frontier in this field. In this chapter the authors analyze if and how MUVEs can be considered a means for augmenting the life of real communities and of people in general. The authors trace a framework of analysis based on four main observations, and through these lenses we look at Second Life and at several projects they are currently developing in this synthetic world.
The Interplay Between Virtual And Actual: Identity, Relationship, And Place
The relationship between online and offline life (but we rather use synthetic and actual—see Castranova, 2005 and De Cindio et al., 2008) has been widely studied in recent years, adopting several different approaches and through the lenses of different disciplines (e.g., psychology, computer science, sociology, economy, architecture, etc.).
An exhaustive analysis of each of the aforementioned research branches is almost impossible; nevertheless, within each of them, some key features naturally emerge denoting particular or remarkable facets of the complex relation which binds together the synthetic and the actual worlds.
Three key concepts, in particular, seem to be fundamental for investigating how synthetic and actual worlds overlap, intersect, and interact to “augment” each other, instead of being counterpoised (Mitchell, 2003; Wellman & Haythornthwaite, 2002). These concepts are: identity, relationship, and place. It is through these dimensions that we analyze how MUVEs (Multi Users Virtual Environments)—among which synthetic worlds are one of the more “extreme” products of the cyberculture movement—are becoming more and more an extension of people everyday life. MUVEs does not provide their users with an alternate reality, but augment and add “value” (which should be implicit in the notion of augmentation) to their actual life.
Our framework of analysis is based on four major observations:
Observation 1: online identity is an extension of personal actual identity, which is socio-culturally constructed and evolves over time in both worlds.
Observation 2: online social networks emerge, in the space of possibilities created by the Internet, as extensions of actual ones; in this process “online identities” can be involved as well.
Observation 3: synthetic places are the extension of actual, public, and private spaces. They augment people’s possibility to interact in online social networks and, at the same time, are affected and shaped by social interactions.
Observation 4: online identity, relations, and places can interact to augment effectively people actual social life. A careful and exhaustive design of the online social environment is required for this to happen: this means that critical factors affecting social interactions among users must be taken very seriously, and need a consistent amount of study, to guarantee the success of a synthetic world.
Key Terms in this Chapter
Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs): an online version (played over a local network or the Internet by more than one player) of role-playing games. An online role-playing game can also be seen as a graphically illustrated MUD.
Multi-User Dungeons/Domains/Dimensions (MUDs): text-based environments in which many users are able to communicate and construct an environment in “real-time.” MUDs can also be seen as a chat-room with a stabile geography and with focus on role-playing.
Virtual World: a computer-simulated environment, usually inhabited by avatars. The virtual world representation may assume very different forms (two or three-dimensional graphic landscape, text-based description, etc.). The majority of virtual worlds allow multiple users.
Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs): game type (not necessary an RPG) where several (typically several thousand) players act simultaneously in the same server based world. In order to play MMOGs users normally pay a monthly fee.
3D chats: a real-time communication between multiple users over the Internet which occurs in 3d shaped “chat rooms” with 3d shaped “avatars”.
MUVEs: online, multi-user virtual environments, sometimes called virtual worlds. This medium is born of the combination of two technologies: virtual reality and text-based chat environments such as Multi-User Domains (MUDs).
Cyberculture: a collection of cultures and cultural products that has emerged, or is emerging, from the use of Internet (and generally of computers) for communication, entertainment and business.
Online Community: people who interact through an ICT-based communication environment, recognize a minimum common goal that holds them together, share one or more domain/s of knowledge and shared practice/s, and define implicit or explicit policies for regulating their interactions.
MUDs Object Oriented (MOOs): a particular kind of MUD operating with objects that the players/users can interact with (and sometimes alter/create).
Avatar: a representation of a real user in a virtual world. It can assume different forms (e.g., icons, 2 or 3 dimensional representations, text-descriptions) and may reproduce realistically the specific user or, on the contrary, portrait a totally-invented identity.