Recipe for a Virtual World 3: places

Virtual Worlds need people and people need places. For collaboration or socialising, a sense of place sets virtual worlds apart from alternatives like instant messaging and conference calls. As in the real world, meeting to play games or do business (or both) in a virtual world needs a place to do it. Unlike the real world, there are few constraints to limit these places. It doesn’t rain if you don’t want it to, and you don’t need shade from the sun, so a roof becomes an aesthetic choice rather than a necessity. Physics; what goes up, might come down if you want it to. Yet the possibilities are not endless if you want a virtual space to be successful: the remaining constraints, other than any technical limitations, are formed by people’s expectations. And discovering what those are, and how they vary, is going to be interesting. (I’m going to predict that 3d blinking text won’t be popular!)

With all these virtual places, navigating virtual worlds has startling (to me at least!) similarities to navigating the real world. To make things interesting, some of the problems navigating the real world are magnified. My first experience of Second Life was teleporting to a totally random set of locations and some subsequent aimless wandering/flying. I have absolutely no idea where any of those places are! I did try and go back to one of them later but without any GPS I didn’t stand a chance. To start with teleporting reminded me of stepping out of tube stations in London- I gradually get to know the area round stations I visit frequently, without realising that they are in fact practically next to each other! To make matters worse, navigating by landmarks can be unreliable when the landmarks can change so quickly and completely. It’s like going back to a home town after moving away for years, when new roads and buildings have replaced old familiar landmarks. Except that change happens much faster in a virtual world, and even mountains can move!

I quickly learnt to save landmarks of places I might want to return to in Second Life, which leads to the next tiny problem. Places change. In the real world, people and businesses move. In the virtual world they seem to do it a lot! I might go back to a cake shop I visited a month or two ago in the real world to discover that it now sells clothes. In the virtual world, I might go back to a shop to discover that the shop has gone, along with the town it was in! I might teleport in to the middle of a battlefield! It will get even more interesting when places move from one virtual world to another- my Second Life landmark is not going to do much good in Kaneva!

The DNS system already provides a way to look up the address of a computer based on a name. So the computer this weblog is hosted on could move from one country to another and the name you use to view it would stay the same. Instead of a post code (isn’t a zip what you use on clothes?!) system, maybe a Place Name Service (PNS) would help. No need to restrict this one to virtual worlds either. Register your place name and when someone uses it, they could end up with a real world address, a Second Life landmark, etc. etc.

That doesn’t solve the problem of finding places in the first place. This is a bigger problem on a general purpose virtual world, since not finding a place you think is interesting or useful is likely to mean you leave thinking that the whole virtual world is not interesting or useful. There could have been the most amazing place just round the corner and you would never know. (You’ll live without it but thats a big problem for a virtual world that wants more active users.) In the real world, you might use a guide book or go on a tour to find interesting places. Why not do the same in a virtual world? Or, as with anything on the internet, look out for where other people are going. Tom Werner’s blog might be a good place to look, although I must admit I am slightly biased!

So what are your top 5 virtual places (Second Life or anywhere else)?


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