A sociological approach with some examples from the Netherlands
Jan de Bruin & Dirk-Jan de Bruin
Policy Scientist/student of Computer Science
Tilburg University, Department of Policy and Organization Sciences/Virtual
Address: P.O. Box 90153, 5000 LE Tilburg, the Netherlands/Houtzaagmolensingel 47, Bovenkarspel, the Netherlands
Fax: +31 228 521827

We start with a very broad point of view: mankind facing multiple realities and the lessons sociology learned in the last century in handling such realities (section II). Using an encompassing conceptual framework, we look in section III at the concept ‘virtual reality’ and the expansion of this concept in the direction of 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVWs) on the Internet. In section IV, we stress in relation to IVWs the concepts ‘world’ and ‘society’ and address the various levels of social-cultural complexity that IVWs can achieve. In section V, we deal first with the move to social-cultural complexity in gaming worlds. In section VI, we analyse the contribution of CCON in promoting social-cultural complexity in virtual societies. In section VII, we analyze the IVW-movement in the Netherlands, predominantly describing the societal useful applications of 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds build within the Active Worlds platform. In section VIII we will round off the paper with some conclusions.
The introduction of new reality conceptions is often seen as revolutionary change and the topic of much controversy. Too often our thinking about reality then works with dichotomies. For instance, the fundamental split between natural sciences focussed on physical reality and the sciences of the spirit studying symbolic/cultural reality (the realm of symbols and meaning). ‘Virtual reality’ is also too often described as one pole of a fundamental dichotomy. For instance, we can observe in the Netherlands discussions about the fundamental split between ‘real’ or ‘natural reality’ versus ‘virtual reality’.

Sociology in the twentieth century played a role in demolishing such fundamental dichotomies by substituting them with more elaborated conceptual schemes. Using the concept of multiple realities, Talcott Parsons developed a broad conceptual scheme, the action frame of reference. This scheme specifies in what capacity elements of realms of reality outside the realm of action could be part of the action scheme and to make the study of the interrelations between the different aspects of the realm of action possible. Realities outside the realm of action are ‘physical reality’ and ‘ultimate reality’ (the reality associated with religion) which can enter the realm of action in the form of, for instance, constraints or means of action. Parsons divides the realm of action itself in the physiological, the psychological, the social and the cultural aspect of action.

Several lessons were learned by sociology the hard way in the past in relation to reality concepts. If a new reality concept arises, don’t place it apart from other reality concepts too rigorously. Do not model the new reality concept too much on the lines of familiar reality concepts. Try to give it a place within an encompassing conceptual scheme. The action scheme is such a scheme.

The concept of ‘social reality’ was the claim for the rise of sociology as a distinct discipline. It was tempting to overemphasize the differences between ‘physical’ and ‘social’ reality. Often ‘social reality’ is described in terms derived from the natural sciences: social hierarchy was depicted as persons being ‘above’ or ‘below’ other persons. A sophisticated position was to see ‘social reality’ as connected to other reality concepts, all depicting aspects of an encompassing action space. For instance, in order to experience social reality, we need culture that creates and sustains this social reality. This approach can also be applied to the so-called virtual reality as part of human action space. That reality needs a certain set of computer programs and a hardware configuration to ‘serve up’ so-called ‘virtual environments’ but also a set of institutions needed to create persistent virtual communities and societies.
After a period in which the concept Virtual Reality (VR) was gradually expanded to encompass all kinds of developments, there is nowadays a tendency to state that the concept ‘virtual reality’ is obsolete and should be substituted by concepts as ‘virtual environment’ or ‘synthetic space’ and so on. Because the expression ‘reality’ has such an important place in our argument, we stick with the concept ‘virtual reality’ as a very encompassing concept in relation to virtual or synthetic environments created by computer programs. However, in order to call something a Virtual World, it is not necessary for these worlds to be experienced through expensive VR gear.

The concept ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR) implies a computer-generated synthetic space that embeds humans (actors) as an integral part of the system. It is only when we want to achieve the so-called ‘full immersion’ that such VR systems use hardware such as gloves, projection screens, and head mounted displays. Examples of complex VR-systems are the Virtual Sphere and projection based VR systems such as the Cave systems and their successors such as the Immersadesk and the Iwall. These VR systems are quite expensive. Less expensive are screen based VR systems where the 3D effect is enhanced by CrystalEyes LCD shutter glasses. The cheapest computer mediated synthetic environments can be accessed, preferably through the Internet, with the use of quite normal computers without the necessity of classical VR-gear (gloves, HMD, projection systems or shutter glasses).

The functional core of a lot of VR applications is the creation (design), manipulation, and experiencing of objects in 3D environments. In architecture, the creating of buildings in VR is well established. In art, artists are experimenting with VR art such as the Dutch Weightless Sculpture Project. In industry, ParallelGraphics makes virtual manuals for the installation, operation, maintenance and reparation of complex machinery ( In the military, the handling of equipment by pilots and soldiers is improved in VR simulators. VR can also give us realistic experiences of heights, movements, space and so on. In therapy, this can be used to treat people for their fear of heights, claustrophobia, and fear of flying and so on. In the sphere of entertainment, the experience of movement, heights and so on in VR are well known. All these applications focus primarily on the interaction of users with objects and artefacts in VR.

In the above mentioned VR applications, immersion is indeed possible, but it is primarily an immersion in physical reality and a reality of technical artefacts, and not in social reality. In relation to VR, ‘immersion’ is a variable and the type or aspect of reality to which this variable should be applied ought to be specified.

In our opinion, social and cultural realities are not stressed enough in VR, even when talking about Virtual Worlds. The topic of the second world conference on VWs in Paris in 2000 was defined as ‘digital worlds with their own "physical" and "biological" laws’. This definition does not stress the social-cultural reality which is our primary interest. We concentrate on computer-mediated synthetic environments as a means of social-cultural interaction between multi-users. If massive participation in such environments is possible, this will create a new field of social interaction that is of societal importance. Such a promise could motivate dedicated builders, users and students of 3D IVWs to form a 3D Inhabited Virtual World movement.

In relation to 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVWs) on the Internet an important question is: Are the developments driven by the (providers of) technology or steered by the users? IVWs occurred on the Internet when the technology of text-based chat channels of the seventies and eighties of the twentieth century was merged with a visual interface in which users were represented as ‘Avatars’. It occurred first in Habitat in the mid-1980s and reached an important milestone with the launch of the 3D Internet-based Worlds Chat in the spring of 1995. By using Avatars, one can experience the feeling of presence, of being ‘in world’, without the need of expensive VR-equipment.

From the start of 3D IVWs, there was a discussion about the technological base for the graphical component. The discussion on the merits of so-called VRML IVWs versus IVWs based on AW’s stand-alone browser is for instance not just about technical points, such as the dispute over image quality and frame rate and so on. It is strongly about the link between technology and the social possibilities: How good is the IVW performing in the multi-user mode and what are the possibilities of users influencing the Virtual World, i.e. by building the virtual environments?

Bruce Damer, CEO of Contact Consortium (CCON), wrote in 1997 that ‘VRML may be stuck as a tool to review engineering and scientific models’ but not suitable for great IVWs (the Metaverse) ( This position was reiterated in later publications. Damer wanted to empower the users, because he thought that the development of IVWs should be driven by the users. A Multi-User Virtual world where users could build themselves was more easily realized in worlds built with the AW browser than in so-called VRML worlds.

Damer and CCON tried to create around the label ‘Inhabited Virtual Worlds’, or ‘Avatar cyberspace’ a movement with a working program, an ideology for the direction of further development of Virtual Worlds. We return in section VI and VII to the question: What drives the IVW movement? But first of all, let us look at concepts such as ‘world’ and the prerequisites for addressing a Virtual World as a ‘virtual society’.
When discussing ‘Virtual Worlds’, we should not only pay attention to the concept ‘virtual’, but also to the concept ‘world’, a concept with a long history in philosophy. According to Kant a ‘world’ is an all-encompassing context for the totality of human activities and experiences (Düsing 1986). If such a context exists in so-called ‘Inhabited Virtual Worlds’, they truly can be called ‘worlds’, or sociologically, ‘virtual societies’.

According to sociological theory, this implies that there should exist within such Virtual Worlds a full range of social institutions regulating virtual life which create sustainable and self-sufficient virtual societies. From 1999 on, we – in collaboration with Bruce Damer – underlined the importance of taking concepts such as ‘world’ and ‘society’ seriously in relation to IVWs (see:

It is possible to sketch some levels of social-cultural complexity by roughly applying Parsons’s theory of evolutionary universals (Parsons, 1966) to the evolution of IVWs. The core of his theory is that if a society is characterized by an improved set of evolutionary universals its adaptive capacity grows.
In order to even speak about ‘primitive’ society there must be certain fundamental prerequisites for further development. In the primitive stage there is a basic technology to shape the physical environment, a language to communicate, a social system dominated by kinship and religion to legitimize the social system. In the transition to the ‘traditional’ stage the social system becomes more complex because a societal division of social functions arises and a kind of hierarchy. This social complexity is legitimized by a differentiated culture that supports specific functions, such as the political one, as something outside kinship relations. The ‘modern’ stage is reached if evolutionary universals are created such as bureaucratic organizations, money and market systems, democratic procedures in organizations, and universal systems of norms (law).

In the early stages of colonizing Cyberspace, it is natural that much attention is paid to architectural work on the layout of the world, its buildings, and the appearance of Avatars. If you look at a lot of Virtual Worlds in AW, these worlds are mostly in what we call the ‘spadework phase’ and are only creating the preconditions for becoming a society. Also in these early stages the ‘basic anthropological institutions’ are erected to regulate social life within an IVW by streamlining human activities around basic human needs, such as sex (the institution of marriage), the institutions of communication (language), and of giving meaning to life (religion) and so on. Such IVWs can be labelled ‘primitive societies’ or ‘traditional societies’ and most IVWs are in this category.
In the modern stage of IVWs, we typically observe a functional differentiation of societies and the formation of specific institutions such as a modern division of labour (for instance, in the form of bureaucratic organizations), money and market systems, universalistic systems of law (basic human rights and so on), and finally a system to guide society and develop policy (a political system).

Looking at IVWs from a sociological point of view, we can make several observations, using notions we discussed in section II and III.
First of all, there is a lot of attention for the physiological aspect of action in IVWs. This can be observed by looking at the amount of attention that is still focussed on such things as moving (walking, jumping, flying) and so on. On the border between the physiological and the psychological aspect of the realm of action, work is being done on the communication of emotions by facial expressions of Avatars. All this is below the level of social reality as an aspect of action systems.
Secondly, many IVWs are sociologically speaking very primitive virtual societies. If there is attention for institutions within virtual societies, they are mostly at the level of what is called the institutions that regulate basic human needs (marriage as an institution to regulate sex and so on; tribes/clans as primitive forms of social organization). One can easily understand that, in so far as social scientists study IVWs, primarily a lot of anthropologists pay attention to this new type of social reality.
Thirdly, while sympathizing with the point of view that the IVW movement should be a grassroots movement, we do not see a tendency towards greater social complexity in the more than thousand AW worlds, where users can create their worlds themselves. Users are not doing much more than building either as a solitary activity or sometimes as a collaborative activity. There is not much social interaction, except chat, going on in such worlds and social complexity is quite low.
Hereafter, we will first observe the move toward social complexity in gaming worlds (section V) and then, in section VI, we analyze the contribution of CCON/DigitalSpace in steering the IVW movement in the direction of more social complexity.
Gaming worlds have made a technical contribution (Renderware) to IVWs. Nowadays gaming worlds seems to contribute to a higher level of social complexity in Virtual Worlds.
In the past, online games were typically violent (Quake, Wolfenstein 3D). Also the sword-and-sorcery style EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, and Ultima Online games typically possess the social structure of a primitive or traditional society with arch-typical groups such a Shamans, Warriors, Magicians and Bards. While often promoting collaborative action in teams, their type of social organization was typical for traditional societies: guilds and so on.
The prospects for modernity are better nowadays. A new generation of massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPG) comes up with a broader range of social activities than fighting. In such Virtual Worlds socializing is important and a growing complexity of social reality can be observed. Asheron’s Call 2 will have an in-depth crafting system that improves non-combative skills. A Tale in the Desert (ATiTD) will not be about fighting, but trading, construction, and cooperation. The new Virtual World There ( will have a social architecture which should (also) please the 22- to 29-year-old female demographic. The announced 3D online Virtual World Second Life ( will be about creative self-expression, social interaction, and fun.
The users will also be more influential. Several new MMORPGs will let users design their Avatar, build their own houses and shape the architectural environment. Furthermore, several components of modern society are implemented or can be created: some kind of economy, law making (ATiTD), and government. Entropia announced a type of real life economy to be part of the game. These types of games worlds will be persistent, and will not only reflect physical and biological realities, but, most important of all, will increasingly have a social-cultural structure that will mirror the complexity of normal life.
Being massive makes it understandable that virtual society must be more complicated than in a lot of IVWs in AW, which are often not inhabited at all. Initially multi-million companies are the driving forces behind these games, but for the development of the game the users are important. Still the difference between gaming worlds and Inhabited Virtual Worlds is that participating in gaming worlds are a pastime and not done in order to add something to social activities outside of the Virtual Worlds.
The movement of dedicated Internet users that wants to colonize Cyberspace through graphical IVWs consists of artists, entrepreneurs with 3D companies, scientists, therapists, and also TechnoShamans or TechnoPagans. Every social movement needs organizations to be successful.
Since 1995, Contact Consortium (CCON: is the first and greatest virtual organization with a mission to promote the development of IVWs. CCON saw Cyberspace just as Gibson (the Matrix) and Stephenson (Metaverse) ‘as a labyrinth of interconnected virtual worlds inhabited in real time by millions of people represented as avatars’. IVWs should be the ‘first steps to a powerful new medium for collaboration, play and learning’ and were linked to utopian visions: ‘Also, the idea of creating a new social movement, not to say revolution, communism or new church’.
With an anthropologist as one of the founding fathers, CCON showed in the beginning the influence of anthropological thinking. The organization was interested in the starting points of human life in a natural environment. Its first projects re-enacted basic human needs and the associated institutions in Cyberspace: the first virtual wedding, the virtual village, introducing the virtual forest and organizing Cyberparties. In later years, a more sociological stance can be observed focussed on designing and building IVWs that are more in the modern phase of societal development.

What instruments can a virtual organization employ to steer a social movement? Virtual or imaginary organizations (Hedberg et al., 1997: 14) utilize an inspiring vision, information technology, alliances, and other types of networks to initiate and sustain a boundary-transcending activity. They are mainly based on integrative forces such as trust, synergy, and information technology. CCON employs all these instruments in order to mobilize and direct volunteers from all over the world. CCON definitely sees the IVW movement as a grassroots movement. Damer used the same point of view to 3D IVWs as Rheingold preached in 1999 for text-based virtual communities: Amateurs lead web community building.
A virtual organization that tries to steer a complex movement with different categories will rely on three different mechanisms. Firstly, there must be activities and events interesting for each group to acknowledge diversity. Secondly, there must be a credo or ideology to unite the movement and give it direction. Thirdly, projects must be started and promoted that can be followed by others. CCON, working with DigitalSpace, used all three types of instruments.
Diversity was honoured by CCON through the establishment of a range of Special Interest Groups (SIGs) and by giving presentations for different types of audiences. Unity in the movement was promoted by organizing the yearly large-scale Avatar events. Projects which could be examples to be followed were sometimes the product of a SIG and sometimes it was a co-production of CCON/DigitalSpace. Hereafter, we concentrate on the large-scale Avatar events and on some projects.

The content of the Avatar events changed rapidly over time. The first two Avatars events were traditional conferences. Since 1998, CCON has been organizing the Avatar events as large-scale events totally in Cyberspace. Over 4000 attendees represented as Avatars, attended in 1998. There was a landing zone for new attendees, an awards area, a conference with six ‘speaker pods’ for parallel tracks, an art gallery, and a trade show of forty-eight exhibits for participating companies and organizations. This diversity of activities gives you the impression of being part of a virtual society. It is however only a large-scale virtual event: After the event, the audience disappears and there is no longer a persistent virtual society.
The first Avatars online events (1998 and 1999) were hailed by us as a sign that CCON facilitated the breakthrough of IVWs from the primitive/traditional to the modern phase of virtual societies: Such modern activities as holding a conference, a trade show, a competition, and an art exhibition were simultaneously part of the Avatar-event world. Furthermore, there were SIGS, such as the SocioAnthro SIG and Vlearn3D, which addressed several important topics which arise if we go from the traditional to modern virtual societies
In the last few years, we observed that most of CCON’s SIGs ceased to be very active, with the exception of the SIG Vlearn3D ( Also the diversity of social activities during the Avatars events became less. Increasingly the Avatars events are no longer a platform for the discussion of new developments of IVWs. The 2002 Avatars-event lacked the conference, the AvvyAward ceremonies and the trade show. It was a merry Cyberparty to celebrate Tolkien’s ‘eleventy-one birthday’. The themes of Avatars 2000, 2001, and 2002 came from Science Fiction and Fantasy. Is the push toward modernity and increasing social-cultural complexity coming from the CCON/DigitalSpace projects?

CCON and DigitalSpace are closely interconnected. Their projects make IVWs useable for social activities such as education (TheU: a Virtual University), collaborative, organizational work in organizations (Virtual Headquarters, Virtual Meeting Rooms), sales activities (a 3D virtual bookshop), trade shows (De Bruin et al, 1999), conferences, and space travel (see: and These projects are definitely focussed on adding something to real life and are outside the realm of pastime and amusement. To be successful, the graphical component must be supplemented by content; otherwise we have an empty shell: TheU was not a success because educational activities were absent. Other projects were not yet a success, because the graphical environments did not create an augmented social reality in specific social realms by the use of valuable types of specialized groupware: CCON/DigitalSpace’s Virtual Meeting Room didn’t possess the groupware which made the Electronic Meeting Room (EMR) a success. EMR’s groupware is a bundle of social techniques transformed into software programs such as brainstorming, issue analysis, voting, idea mapping and organization, evaluation of options, policy formation, stakeholder identification, surveying, group writing, and Total Quality Management (TQM). We think that the next phase in the development of CCON/DigitalSpace projects should be the integration of social techniques (groupware) with graphical environments and the communication techniques that are already integrated in IVWs.

Because of its diversity, the IVW movement is very difficult to steer and CCON’s steering instruments are very limited. The centre of attention is shifting from IVWs to gaming worlds. Around 1995, the non-violent IVWs were as technologically advanced as the online gaming worlds. The online gaming worlds progressed quickly (section V) while IVWs did not do so. Partly this was caused by lack of ongoing support of wealthy companies: IVWs were not very profitable. Electronic Communities disappeared, Meet Factory failed to put Iceborg successfully online. ParallelGraphics left the field of IVWs. Blaxxun could not keep its Cybertown online for free, because sponsors were backing out. Microsoft doesn’t see IVWs as a top priority if we look at the position of their Virtual Worlds Group. Popular IVWs such as The Palace, WorldsAway, Onlive! Traveller could only be kept online through volunteers or by introducing a subscription.

Governments, universities and other not-for-profit organizations, commercial companies, and the grassroots of users and volunteers are potential supporters of social movements. This also applies to the IVW movement. Companies are not as supportive of virtual communities and 3D IVWs as they used to be before the ICT bubble broke: Online gaming is a better investment than IVWs. Now governments are more important as supporters. A well-known advice nowadays in the field of virtual communities and IVWs is: Call what you do education and ask for a subsidy. Governments can give the support to 3D IVWs a more central place if they incorporate it in some conception of e-government, but e-government initiatives are still primarily focussed on text-based interfaces with citizens. All over the world, educational organizations, acting on their own or supported by governmental subsidies, are prime supporters within the IVW movement, together with artists and volunteers. This pattern can also be observed in the Netherlands.
In the Netherlands we can observe overlapping circles of common interest between artists and museums, primary and secondary schools, and pedagogical and educational departments of universities. This makes art education an obvious centre of attention. An important virtual organization for the IVW movement is also the foundation 3DEE which operates the largest 3D IVW built in the AW platform in Europe. This organization is also moving towards educational IVW worlds.

The Montessori Lyceum in The Hague (HML) and the Pedagogical and Educational Science (PES) of the University of Nijmegen are quite important for the development of pedagogical IVWs.
The HML is very influential in promoting the use of pedagogical IVWs in the secondary school system. After experimenting with the AW platform for some years, they organized a mini-conference in 1999, together with a consultant organization, to inform the educational community of the possibilities of pedagogical IVWs. They also drew up a long-term program for their activities in collaboration with other organizations. One of their projects connected the pedagogical experiments with the concept of virtual museums and Cyberart. A whole series of virtual museum worlds (Cyberart, Edubacon, Degas) was built. These projects were a collective effort of HML, the Municipal Museum of The Hague, the University of Nijmegen, and Hollab (headed by the artist Sjardijn: The idea of virtual museums with a pedagogical task was also taken over by the Groninger Museum for which Hollab built a museum world (Grmuseum) in the AW platform.
The PES of the University of Nijmegen is the second major player in the educational IVW movement. Beatrice Ligorio, a visiting scholar from Italy, strengthened the orientation of PES on 3D IVWs in the AW platform. In 1999-2000 she used her EC grant to develop virtual environments for computer supported collaborative learning with AW technology. The Dutch/Italian cooperation created Euroland. Van der Meijden of PES started a research program ‘Collaborative and productive learning in groupware and 3-D virtual worlds’ using the AW platform. One of the first projects in Nijmegen was directed at Art education, resulting in the reconstruction of Degas’ art in a 3D Virtual World. In all these projects, there was an intense collaboration between the University of Nijmegen/PES and the HML.

Working outside of the educational system, the foundation 3DEE, established October 1999, tries to popularize IVWs. Young persons form its target population and most of the work is done by volunteers. The volunteers are building the virtual spaces, moderate the discussions, organize the Cyberparties, and write the extensive 3DEE newsletter. The foundation is now also moving in the direction of building educational worlds. While volunteers mainly do the work, some additional financing is generated through advertisements, both ‘in world’ and on its Website, small donations from sympathizers. The users (inhabitants) of the 3DEE world must currently pay 37.50 Euro for a period of one year.
The foundation is expanding the 3DEE world ( The 3DEE world is, as far as we know, the largest 3D IVW built within the AW platform. It offers its visitors (tourists) and users (inhabitants), a variety of virtual spaces, the possibility to do several types of activities, and buy a range of (commercial) services.
The variety of virtual spaces is set up with the needs of the audience in mind. In the virtual cinema you can view trailers and buy tickets for real movies in several cities in the Netherlands. There are a lot of public meeting spaces, such as virtual bars. With such a young public, there are, of course, all kinds of virtual dating zones. There is also a virtual museum with paintings and sculptures. Cyberparties and performances are organized in the 3D studio.
Users (inhabitants) can do a wide range of activities in the 3DEE world. They can chat, listen to music, hire and furnish a virtual house, buy music in virtual shops (e-commerce), put a message on a big billboard, post their picture in the photo gallery, play a variety of games (darts, checkers, chess, football), gamble in the casino with virtual money and so on. What they can not do at the moment is build their own world from scratch. What they can do is bring in suggestions as to what they want to have built by the building team and they can furnish their houses from a pre-established range of possibilities.
In the 3DEE world, the inhabitants are presented several services that are important for the young population: tickets for movies, the possibility to buy online music, links with information about the labour market and so on.
In section VI, we praised the social-cultural complexity of the early Avatars events. We couldn’t call these virtual environments ‘virtual societies’ because they were not persistent social entities. The social-cultural complexity of the 3DEE world is even greater - and expanding - and the world is always ‘online’. The 3DEE world approaches the idea of a modern ‘virtual society’.
It is not only people (Avatars) that matter in IVWs, but also institutions that shape a new type of virtual reality. Within this approach, we must ask if Virtual Worlds possess the social-cultural complexity needed to call them ‘virtual societies’. We need also to study the change of virtual societies over time to see if they manifest an increasingly complex set of institutions and by doing so are moving in the direction of being modern virtual societies. It is also important to ask what makes up the social movement of persons and organizations that are trying to steer Inhabited Virtual Worlds in the direction of being modern virtual societies.
Only when social-cultural complexity of IVWs is functional, will it persist. This can be observed in several recent massive online game worlds. A lot of IVWs in the AW universe are hardly populated and there is not a functionally defined need for a complex social-cultural architecture. Therefore, such complexity is missing in these IVWs.
The growth of institutions as the expression of social-cultural complexity can be spontaneous or planned. Where social-cultural complexity exists - the Avatars events, game worlds, and 3DEE - it was designed and implemented by a group of world builders and didn’t arise from the spontaneous activities of end users.