Last Friday when I asked readers if they were fascinated by the virtual world of Skyrim, in the new Elder Scrolls game of the same name, it raised a lot of objections that Skyrim shouldn't be called a virtual world at all.
But the thing is, there's no one agreed upon definition of "virtual world", which you can see by the Wikipedia entry, which says "A virtual world is an online community that takes the form of a computer-based simulated environment through which users can interact with one another and use and create objects" (i.e. like Second Life), while also noting that "Some single-player games contain virtual worlds populated by non-player characters (NPC)" (i.e. like Skyrim.) So I think it's more useful to say Skyrim and Second Life are different kinds of virtual worlds, especially if we're to define the category as broadly as possible: "A computer-simulated persistent world". I also think it's useful to think about all the ways Skyrim is more or at least as much of a virtual world than Second Life. Here's at least seven:
- Skyrim is geographically contiguous - Second Life is not. Long ago, it was possible to walk from one end of Second Life to another. Now, SL is dominated by thousands of private islands, many of which are artificially inaccessible. By contrast, you can walk from one end of Skyrim to the other.
- Skyrim has an internally consistent, universal physics -- Second Life does not. In some areas of SL you can fly; in others, you cannot. You can even change the position of the sun, and soon, the very way light is filtered. And so on.
- Skyrim has a pre-existing ecosystem of flora and fauna -- Second Life does not. Wildlife and people (NPCs) thrive in Skyrim. Outside of virtual pets and the rare virtual ecosystem, SL is mainly bereft of animal species, and has none that exist independent of their human creators and owners.
- Skyrim is self-contained and relatively separate from the the wider Internet -- Second Life is much more integrated with the web, and therefore, arguably less "worldly".
- Skyrim doesn't have much dynamic user-generated content -- but Second Life doesn't have "natural" dynamic user-generated content either. In Second Life, user-created objects artificially instantiate out of thin air. The user-created content of Minecraft, by contrast, is formed from wood, stone, and other natural materials harvested from the simulated world, which feels more world-like to me. In that regard, Minecraft is more "worldly" than either SL or Skyrim.
- Skyrim is a single unified experience of a world -- Second Life contains multitudes of very different world-like experiences. A "world" that contains, for example, space marine shooters, fantasy MMOs, urban roleplay, furries, Goreans, real life educators, metaverse artists, and so on and on, seems less like a world, than a platform for multiple worlds.
Finally, many have raised the objection that Skyrim is a single-player game, whereas Second Life allows multiple users to interact with each other synchronously. That's true, but then, that means Second Life is more of a virtual community than Skyrim, but I'm not convinced that makes SL more of a world. Especially when most SLers have very different, very separate experiences of SL from each other. What's more, Skyrim does have an online community, with hundreds of thousands if not millions of users sharing their experiences of the world together. It just happens to be asynchronous, playing out on Reddit and many more online communities and users forums. Then again, that's how the majority of interaction and sharing happens with Second Life-related content -- not in the world itself, but on Facebook, Plurk, YouTube, Twitter, SL Universe, etc. etc.
Of course, none of this suggests Skyrim is superior to SL, or vice versa, just that they have their own strengths and weaknesses as virtual worlds. But I will say this: If you're interested in widening the market for virtual worlds (and I am), it's a good idea to widen the definition of the category, than narrow it.