DigitalSpace Commons 3D Interview

Virtual Worlds and an Inhabited Virtual Worlds Movement

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
Tel: +31 13 4662974/+31 228 522388
Fax: +31 228  521827 E-mail:

I.                     Introduction

We start with a very broad point of view: mankind facing multiple realities and the lessons sociology learned in the last century in handling multiple realities and in particular social reality (section II). Using an encompassing conceptual framework, we look in section III at the new reality concept ‘virtual reality’ and the expansion of this concept in the direction of Virtual Worlds in general and the special type of Virtual Worlds that we call 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds on the Internet in particular. In section IV, we stress in relation to the concept ‘Virtual World’ the importance of the concept ‘world’ and, when talking about Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVW), of  ‘society’ as a sociological concept. We also address in section IV 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 continue our analysis by focussing on the question: Is CCON steering the IVW movement in the direction of more social complex Virtual Worlds or virtual societies?  In section VII, we analyze the IVW-movement in the Netherlands. To make our task manageable, we shall predominantly describe the societal useful applications of 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds build within the Active Worlds platform. Section VIII round off the paper with some conclusions.

II.                  A sociological approach of  multiple realities

Dichotomy or multiple realities

Mankind is acting within the realm of several realities. All realities are conceptual interpretations of impressions of the senses. Being conceptual constructions that only give partial interpretations make them analytical; the belief that these conceptual constructions represent facts existing outside the observer makes them realistic. In sociology this line of thinking is since Talcott Parsons (1937) called the analytic-realistic position.

The history of human thinking is a parade of new conceptions of reality. The introduction of new reality conceptions is often seen as revolutionary change and the topic of much controversy. Too often our thinking about reality works with dichotomies. We refer, for instance, to the methodological battle about the fundamental split between natural sciences focussed on physical reality and the sciences of the spirit (‘Geisteswissenschaften’) studying symbolic/cultural reality (the realm of symbols and meaning) such as was initiated by the works of the philosopher Kant.  ‘Virtual reality’ is too often described as one pole of a fundamental dichotomy. For instance, we can observe in the Netherlands discussions about the split between ‘real’ or natural reality versus ‘virtual reality’.

A sociological point of view: The action frame

Sociology in the twentieth century played a role in demolishing such fundamental dichotomies by substituting them by more elaborated conceptual schemes. Confronted with the concept of multiple realities - and all kinds of battles associated with them - the position of sociology (in particular Talcott Parsons) in the twentieth century was to work with a broad conceptual scheme, the action frame of reference. This scheme had two tasks: to specify 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 of course 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.

Lessons learned

We returned to these familiar lines in sociological thinking to enumerate several lessons learned the hard way in the past in relation to reality concepts. These lessons are first of all: if a new reality concept arises, don’t place it too rigorous apart from other reality concepts. 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.

Historically, this applies to the concept of ‘social reality’ that was the claim for the rise of sociology as a distinct discipline. For sociology, it was tempting to overemphasize the differences between ‘physical’ and ‘social’ reality.  At the same time, it could also be observed that ‘social reality’ was described in terms derived from the natural sciences: social hierarchy was depicted as persons being ‘above’ or ‘below’ other persons.  In the end ‘social reality’ was seen as an aspect of an encompassing reality: action space.

We should deal with ‘virtual reality’ in the same way as was done with ‘social reality’. In order to experience social reality, we need an elaborate ‘machinery’ of culture that creates and sustains this social reality. Also a thorough training in that culture is necessary for people to perceive the relevant elements of that social reality.  Such prerequisites are necessary in order to ‘serve up’ and ‘to experience’ the feeling of being part of a certain type of social reality. 

In principle, this is not different for the so-called virtual reality. That reality needs a certain set of computer programs and a hardware configuration to  ‘serve up’ so-called ‘virtual environments’. Furthermore a certain set of technological instruments, such as gloves, shutter glasses, head mounted displays or just plain computer screens, are necessary in order to ‘experience’ the feeling of presence in these environments.

III.                Virtual Reality: The route toward 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds


In popular discussions about the so-called information society, the terms 3D Cyberspace, Virtual reality  (VR), and 3D (Inhabited) Virtual Worlds are often used interchangeable. 

We describe the route by which the concept Virtual Reality is gradually expanded. In order to call something a Virtual World, it is not necessary that these worlds can be experienced through classical VR gear. In an attempt to define ‘virtual worlds’ as the theme for a scientific conference on this topic, this concept was quite broadly defined.  ‘Thus, Virtual Worlds (VW) could be defined as the study of computer programs that implement digital worlds with their own "physical" and "biological" laws’
We would add to this definition the expression ‘social-cultural regularities’.  In studying IVWs, we focus primarily on social-cultural reality. For instance, we want to know if the development of 3D IVWs is primarily driven by technology or by social factors. After a period in which the concept Virtual Reality was gradually expanded to encompass the various developments, there is nowadays a tendency to state that the concept ‘virtual reality’ is now 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 which the concept ‘virtual reality’ as an very encompassing concept in relation to virtual or synthetic environments created by computer programs. 

Immersion in what type of reality?

The concept ‘Virtual Reality’ (VR) implies a computer-generated synthetic space that embeds humans (actors) as an integral part of the system. To achieve the so-called full immersion such VR system uses several types of hardware such as gloves, and head mounted display (HMD). A well-known example of a complex VR-system is the Virtual Sphere build by the Russian brothers Latypov 
Also well-known are projection based VR systems such as the Cave systems and their successors such as the Immersadesk and the Iwall ( that also use expensive hardware. A complex VR system for medical research (motion capture and rehabilitation) is Caren which is a complex VR system with  six cameras above the motion platform, a large projection screen, shutter glasses, and sensors to be worn on the person. The platform is steered by a Silicon Graphics dual-CPU OCTANE master server and a series of standard PCs ( Less expensive are screen based VR systems where the 3D effect is enhanced by CrystalEyes LCD shutter glasses. Finally, we saw the development of computer mediated synthetic environments that can be accessed, preferably through the Internet, with the use of quite normal computers and where some feeling of immersion is achieved without the necessity of VR-gear (gloves, HMD, projection systems or shutter glasses). 

There exists a wealth of VR applications, with or without full immersion through the use of VR gear. Often the core of such applications is the design and manipulation of objects in 3D environments. Such application of VR in the field of architecture is well established. In art, the digital recording of existing sculptures is an interesting form of VR. It is also possible to create new types of VR art as, for instance, exemplified by the Dutch Weightless Sculpture Project ( A useful form of object oriented VR is the creation of virtual manuals for the installment, operation, maintenance and reparation of machinery
(ParallelGraphics: The handling of complex equipment by pilots and soldiers is improved in all kind of VR simulators. Furthermore, there are VR applications in the sphere of therapy where people can be treated for their fear of heights, claustrophobia, fear of flying and so on. The experience of movement, heights and so can also give us VR applications in the sphere of entertainment and gaming. All these applications focus primarily on the interaction of users with objects and artifacts in VR. 

But what kind of immersion is achieved? In the above VR systems, the experience of a compelling ‘reality’ is indeed possible, but it is primarily physical reality and a reality of technical artifacts, which is experienced.  It is not ‘immersion’ in a compelling social reality that is achieved.  We will not reserve the expression ‘immersion’ for the experience of physical reality. By limiting the relation to reality to only  this aspect of  reality, we observe that, for instance, the participation in Inhabited Virtual Worlds such as Active Worlds is often called ‘non-immersive’.  A more refined approach is to see ‘immersion’ as a variable and to state explicitly to what type or aspect of reality this variable is applied.

Our approach is that we primarily focus on computer-mediated synthetic environments as a means of social interaction between multi-users.  If massive participation in social reality centered computer-generated synthetic spaces is possible, this will create a new field of social interaction that is of societal importance. Such a promise could motivate a social movement of dedicated builders, users and students of 3D IVWs. These groups form the 3D Inhabited Virtual World movement.

3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds: Technology driven or steered by the users?

The development of 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVWs) on the Internet is the merging of several technological trends. In particular the existence of chat channels and games were important.

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 (Benedikt 1991) 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: a plug-in or a stand-alone application. The so-called VRML Multi-User Virtual Worlds always use a VRML plug-in (Cosmo player, Cortona). The Active Worlds platform is a stand-alone application that uses a 3D-rendering engine derived from the sphere of gaming (RenderWare). The discussion on the merits of so-called VRML IVWs versus IVWs based on AW’s stand-alone browser, is not just about technical points, such as the dispute over image quality and frame rate,  the possibility to use low end computers 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 to have influence on the Virtual World, i.e. by building the virtual environments?

Bruce Damer, CEO of Contact Consortium, strongly favored the growth of RenderWare based worlds such as Active Worlds.  He said 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 years in such publications as A Postmortem on VRML (Damer, 1999). 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 build with the AW browser than in  so-called VRML worlds. 

It is important to realize that what we label ‘Inhabited Virtual Worlds’, or ‘Avatar cyberspace’, ‘Avatar Virtual Worlds’, or ‘Multi-User Virtual Worlds’, is 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.

IV.               Inhabited Virtual World: Toward a Cybersociology of Virtual Societies


When we are talking about ‘Virtual Worlds’, we should not only pay attention to the concept ‘virtual’, but also to the concept ‘world’, a concept that has such 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 we transform this concept to the level of thinking about ‘Inhabited Virtual Worlds’, then it must be possible to see such a world as ‘a virtual society’.

In sociological theory, this implies a social-cultural reality within such Virtual Worlds where a full range of social institutions regulates virtual life. So, instead of calling everything ‘inhabited Virtual Worlds’, we propose to reserve this label for IVWs which can be considered as sustainable and self-sufficient societies. This concept of virtual society is more demanding than the concept ‘virtual community’.[1]

In such societies a full range of social institutions is present to shape the complex social interactions to provide the experiences that we experience if we say that we live in a society.  From 1999 on, we – in collaboration with Bruce Damer – underlined the importance of taking concepts such as ‘world’ and ‘society’ serious in relation to IVWs. By doing so, we tried to underplay the predominant technological point of view of thinking about IVWs and give Cybersociology a more important place in discussing this new type of social reality (see:

Virtual societies and evolutionary universals

Is it possible to sketch some levels of social complexity by roughly applying Parsons’s theory of evolutionary universals (Parsons, 1966) to the evolution of IVWs.[2] When a society is characterized by a improved set of evolutionary universals it creates a growing adaptive capacity.

In order to speak about even ‘primitive’ society there must be certain fundamental prerequisites for further development. In the primitive stadium there exists a basic technology to shape the physical environment, a language to communicate, a social system dominated by kinship relations and religion to legitimize the social system. In the transition to the ‘traditional’ stadium the social system becomes more complex because there arises a societal division of social functions 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 stadium 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 a lot of 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. In commercial Virtual Worlds, the company who wants to exploit the IVW often does every thing that is associated with this phase.

The second phase starts when the basic social institutions are erected to regulate social life within an IVW. These institutions are the ‘basic anthropological institutions’ with the function of 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 labeled ‘primitive societies’ or ‘traditional societies’. 

In the modern phase of IVWs, we typically observe a functional differentiation of societies and the formation of specific institutions. Institutions such as a modern division of labor (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).

An overview

By looking from a Cybersociological point of view to IVWs, we can make several observations, which we now can illustrate with notions such as we discussed in section II and III.

First of all, all kinds of VR systems and also IVWs pay a lot of attention to the physiological aspect of action.  The importance of this aspect can be observed by looking at the amount of attention that is still focussed on the basics of seeing from the point of view of the actor, moving (walking, jumping, flying) and so on. Furthermore, there is a lot of attention for the communication of emotions by facial expressions. These problems are located on the border between the physiological and the psychological aspect of the realm of action. All this is below the level of social reality.

Secondly, a lot of 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.

There are several types of driving forces behind IVWs: universities, companies, governments and not-for-profit organizations and volunteers. While sympathizing with the user point of view, the most important question is for us: Are these users automatically building an increasingly complex social reality?

We don’t believe that there exists some mechanism that creates automatically a tendency towards greater social complexity. If we look at the more than thousand AW worlds, it is evident that users are not doing much more than building either as a solitaire 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.

V.                 Social complexity in Virtual worlds:   The contribution of gaming worlds

Can we nowadays observe a movement in the direction of more complex social realities in Virtual Worlds? 

In section III, we observed that gaming worlds contributed technically  (Renderware) to IVWs. Are gaming worlds also important if it comes to creating a growing social complexity of virtual worlds? The development of gaming worlds seems indeed to be heading toward a higher level of social complexity. 

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, the type of social organization they used was typical for traditional societies: guilds and so on.

The prospects for the future seem to be better. 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. Several new MMORPGs will let users design their Avatar, build their own houses and shape the architectural environment.  In addition to that, 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.

Of course, being massive makes it understandable that society must be more complicated than in a lot of IVWs, 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. In the end the difference between gaming worlds and Inhabited Virtual Worlds is that participating in gaming worlds are a pastime and not done in order to improve or add something to social activities outside of the Virtual Worlds.

VI.               Contact Consortium: A virtual organization trying to steer a very complex movement


A movement of dedicated Internet users wants to colonize Cyberspace by creating graphical Inhabited Virtual Worlds (IVW). This IVW movement consists of artists, entrepreneurs with 3D companies, scientists, therapists, and also TechnoShamans or TechnoPagans. It is a very diverse bunch of people. Sociological research demonstrates that every  social movement needs organizations to be successful.

Contact Consortium (CCON: is since 1995 a spearhead of this movement. It is the first and greatest virtual organization with a mission to promote the development of IVWs.  Its mission is platform neutral. Authors such as Gibson (the Matrix) and Stephenson (Metaverse) with their vision of  Cyberspace ‘as a labyrinth of interconnected virtual worlds inhabited in real time by millions of people represented as avatars’ inspire CCON’s vision. In CCON’s opinion, the Inhabited Virtual Worlds of the nineties represent the ‘first steps to a powerful new medium for collaboration, play and learning’. The idea of IVWs as experiments in creating an ideal world, a utopia, was from the beginning present and very tempting.  ‘Also, the idea of creating a new social movement, not to say revolution, communism or new church’ ( ).

In the beginning, CCON showed the influence of anthropological thinking: An anthropologist was one of the founding fathers. Anthropologists are traditionally interested in the starting points of human life in a natural environment. CCON’s  first projects reenacted 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. The interest is then more apparent in designing and building IVWs that are more in the modern phase of societal development.

Instruments to steer the IVW movement

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. This approach fits CCON’s basic stance that for the growth of the IVWs as a social phenomenon, we should focus on the users, or amateurs, and not primarily on the professionals. This position makes users (amateurs) the driving force in the IVW movement.  Damer wanted to apply the same point of view to 3D IVWs as the grand old man of text-based virtual communities, Rheingold, preached in 1999 in a seminal speech in relation to community building: Amateurs lead web community building.

Every virtual organization that tries to direct a complex movement with different categories will rely on three different mechanisms. To acknowledge the diversity, there must be activities, events and so on interesting enough for each category or group. Secondly, such a virtual organization must try to unit the movement and give it direction through its credo or ideology. Thirdly, a movement can be steered by starting and promoting projects that can be followed by others. CCON, working with DigitalSpace, used all three types of instruments.

CCON established a range of SIGs and its CEO Bruce Damer promotes the idea of Inhabited Virtual Worlds by giving presentations and lectures, mostly in the USA and Europe, for different types of audiences. That is an approved way to honor diversity. But there is also the task for virtual organizations of integrating a movement by reinforcing and maintaining a inspiring vision, necessary for its boundary-transcending activities. Organizing large-scale events is a classical approach to cement the unity of the movement. Here large-scale Avatars events come in. In the third place, there are the projects that can be examples to follow. These projects 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.

Avatars events: Pushing IVWs towards being modern virtual societies?

By organizing the Avatar events totally in Cyberspace since 1998, CCON is more or less approaching the image of an IVW that is really a virtual society.  Already the 1998 event was a large-scale event in Cyberspace. Over 4000 attendees represented as Avatars attended a broad range of types of virtual meeting. There was a landing zone for new attendees, an awards area, a conference with six ‘speaker pods’ for parallel tracks in virtual ‘breakout rooms’, an art gallery, and a trade show of forty-eight exhibits for participating companies and organi­zations. With such a diversity of activities going on, you had the impression of being part of a virtual society. However, we must not forget that it is only a large-scale virtual event: After the event, the audience disappears and there is no longer a persistent Inhabited Virtual World.

The content of the Avatar events changed rapidly over time. The two Avatars events before 1998 were discussion forums/conferences where people demonstrated their products and discussed them and made presentations. The first Avatars online events (1998 and 1999) were hailed by us in several articles  (De Bruin & De Bruin, 1999, 2000, 2001) as a sign that CCON facilitated the breakthrough of IVWs from the primitive to the modern phase of virtual societies. We pointed to the Special Interest Groups (SIGS) such as the SocioAnthro SIG and,
( that addressed several important topics which arise if we go from the traditional to modern virtual societies. But we were most of all impressed by the Avatars event-worlds where simultaneously such modern activities as holding a conference, a trade show, a competition, and an art exhibition were part of the IVW.

In the last couple of years, we observed that most of CCON’s SIGs ceased to be very active.  Only the SIG Vlearn3D is active and goes on with conferences ( In the last three years, the diversity of social activities during the Avatars events became less. Increasingly the Avatars events stopped to be a platform for the discussion of new developments in the field of IVWs in general. In the 2002 version of Avatars, not only the conference, but also the AvvyAward ceremonies and the trade show, although there were still some booths, were gone.  The Avatars event was transformed in a merry Cyberparty to celebrate Tolkien’s eleventy-one birthday. 

The themes of Avatars 2000, 2001, and 2002 were already taken from the sphere of Science Fiction and Fantasy. We can not say that CCON’s intention to move IVWs beyond the realm of chat and gaming is very evident during the last years.  Can we then say that the push toward social complexity and in the direction of modernity and increasing social-cultural complexity is coming from the CCON/DigitalSpace projects?

CCON/DigitalSpace’s projects:Augmenting social reality through IVWs?

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 (
·        space travel (

These projects are definitely focused on adding something to well-established social realms such as education and economy. They are all outside the realm of pastime and amusement.  To make a success of these projects, we must create virtual environments in which the graphical component is supplemented by content, otherwise we have an empty shell: TheU was not a success because educational activities were absent. Other projects are not yet a success, because the graphical environments were only combined with very general groupware (tools of communication). Therefore these 3D virtual environments were not elevated to the level of an augmented social reality in specific social realms by the use of valuable types of specialized groupware. For instance, CCON/DigitalSpace’s Virtual Meeting Room didn’t possess the groupware which made the Electronic Meeting Room (EMR) a success in business settings. The groupware that is used in the EMR is a bundle of social techniques transformed in 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).

In several articles, we expressed the opinion 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.


We started with the observation that the IVW movement is quite divers. Such a movement is very difficult to steer. The possibilities of CCON to do so are very limited. CCON’s SIGs have not established themselves as the dominant platforms for specialized and innovative discussions. The Avatars events, while still being important, are not as functionally complex as they used to be.  The center of attention, also of the academic community, is shifting from the field of IVWs to online gaming.  CCON/DigitalSpace projects could be improved by paying more attention to the incorporation of social techniques.

Furthermore, the field of IVWs is going through rough times. Around 1995, the non-violent IVWs were as technological advanced as the online gaming worlds. In the last couple of years the online gaming worlds became more realistic in appearance, while not yet reaching the graphical levels of the console games, and also the social complexity became higher (section V). In the field of IVWs the technological and social progress was in that period not very impressive. That had partly to do with the fact that not a lot of IVWs had the ongoing support of wealthy companies.

Unlike online games, IVWs were not very profitable. Companies that tried commercially to exploit IVWs didn’t succeed  (Electronic Communities, Meet Factory who failed to put Iceborg successfully online). Other companies such as ParallelGraphics left the field of IVWs. Blaxxun could not keep its Cybertown online for free, because sponsors were backing out. Furthermore, it is clear that Microsoft doesn’t see IVWs as a top priority if we look at the position of their Virtual Worlds Group.  Several popular IVWs (The Palace, WorldsAway, Onlive! Traveller) could only be kept online through volunteers or by introducing a subscription  (such as Cybertown did, starting January 1 2003).

VII.             The IVW movement in the Netherlands

Which organizations can support 3D IVWs?

Governments, universities and other not-for-profits organizations, commercial companies, and the grass roots of users and volunteers are potential supporters of social movements. This also applies to the IVW movement.

Companies are not so 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 focused on education and so on. 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 subsidy.  By providing subsidies, government is then a secondary supporting organization. Governments can give the support to 3D IVWs a more central place if they incorporate it in some conception of e-government. That is not happening in the Netherlands: E-government initiatives are still primarily focused on text-based interfaces with citizens.

Educational organizations, acting on their own or supported by governmental subsidies, are all over the world prime supporters within the IVW movement, together with artists and volunteers. This pattern can also be observed in the Netherlands.

The support structure for IVWs in the Netherlands

The concept of e-government does not stimulate VR and IVWs. Only in the realm of spatial planning a consultant organization Eflow tries, together with a ICT-developer Cebra, to add VR and IVWs to their tool kit. They want to interest government at various levels (local and regional) in the concept Virtuocity ( Its intention is to produce Virtual Worlds where stakeholders can walk through in order to improve spatial planning. They received subsidy from the European program Stimulus and from the Dutch government to develop this concept.

The IVW movement in the Netherlands is for a large part focused on education. The AW platform is widely used and there are worldwide contacts with the educational community of the AW platform organized in Eduverse. There is a link with CCON and in particular with their SIG Vlearn3D. Within education, it is obvious that the graphical component of 3D IVWs makes these worlds quite attractive for art education. It is not astonishing that with these topics, we can observe overlapping circles of common interest between artists and museums, primary and secondary schools and pedagogical and educational departments of universities.

In addition to all this, we have in the Netherlands also a movement of volunteers who want to promote IVWs. The foundation 3DEE will be discussed as an example.

Prime movers within the educational sphere

In the Dutch movement, two driving forces are geared towards pedagogical IVWs: the Montessori Lyceum in the Hague (HML) and the Pedagogical and Educational Science (PES) of the university KUN. These organizations are working together within the concept of educational collaboration in virtual environments (

The HML was instrumental in the Netherlands to promote the use of pedagogical IVWs in the secondary school system. After experimenting for a couple of years with the AW platform, they organized in 1999 a mini-conference, together with a consultant organization, to inform the educational community of the possibilities of pedagogical IVWs. Also they draw 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 build. These projects were a collective effort of such organizations as HML, the Municipal Museum of The Hague, KUN, 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 KUN, in particular PES, is the second major player in the educational IVW movement.  Beatrice Ligorio,  a visiting scholar from Italy at KUN, 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, a world in Eduverse (see:  Van der Meijden started a research program ‘Collaborative and productive learning in groupware and 3-D virtual worlds’ using the AW platform ( One of the first projects 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 KUN/PES and the HML.

Amateurs (volunteers) as an important mover in the IVW movement

The foundation 3DEE, erected October 1999, tries to popularize VR and to use its expertise to assists others in community building. The foundation is now also moving in the direction of building educational worlds. Volunteers mainly do the work, but some additional financing is necessary. Some income is generated through advertisements, both ‘in world’ and on its Website. Small donations are asked from sympathizers. Users (inhabitants) of the 3DEE world must currently pay 37,50 Euro for a period of one year.

The foundation is now mainly building and expanding the 3DEE world ( This world is build within the AW platform, but the foundation bought a server license from and therefore their world is outside of the AW universe. The 3DEE world is, as far as we know, the largest 3D IVW build 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 furthermore a range of (commercial) services is offered. There are volunteers, who build the virtual spaces, moderate the discussions in the world (public speakers), organize the Cyberparties, and write the extensive 3DEE newsletter.

Firstly, there is a variety of virtual spaces. For example, there is a cinema where you can view trailers and buy tickets for real movies in several cities in the Netherlands. Other buildings are a couple of café’s which can be used as meeting places. There is also a representation of the famous Red Light district in Amsterdam build within the world. With such a young public, there are, of course, all kinds of dating zones within the world. A section of the world houses 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. That activity is central in normal AW worlds.  What they can do is bring in suggestions what they will 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 about the labor market and so on.

When we discussed the Avatar events, we praised the social-cultural complexity of these events. We couldn’t call these virtual environments ‘virtual societies’ because they were only events and not persistent social entities. The 3DEE world is even more social complex - and expanding - and always ‘online’. This world approaches the idea of a ‘virtual society’ which can increasingly be considered as a modern virtual society.

VIII.           Some conclusions

It is not only people that matter in Virtual Worlds.  Virtual Worlds are also about social interaction and the institutions that shape a new type of social-cultural reality.  Within this approach, we must first of all ask if Virtual Worlds possess the social-cultural complexity needed to call them ‘virtual societies’. Secondly, we need to study if virtual societies are over time manifesting an increasingly complex set of institutions and by doing so are moving in the direction of being modern virtual societies. Thirdly, it is 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.

The tendency toward increasingly social-cultural complexity of  IVWs is only persistent if  it is functional.  In massively populated Virtual Worlds, it is functional for what is going on ‘in world’ and for the benefits derived by users from their ‘in world’ participation. This can be observed in recent massive online game worlds. In a lot of IVWs, see the worlds in the AW universe, there are hardly inhabitants occupying these worlds. In such IVWs 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. We think that social-cultural complexity must be planned. Where we saw social-cultural complexity –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.

Selected bibliography

Benedikt, M. (ed.). (1991). Cyberspace: First Step. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Bruin, J. de, Bruin, D-J. de, Damer, B., and Gold, S (1999). Conferences and Trade Shows in Inhabited Virtual World:, A Case Study of AVATARS98. Invited paper for The ACM MM99 conference. Workshop Multimedia Tradeshow’99.  Orlando.

Bruin, J. de, Bruin, D-J. de (1999). De kolonisering van de virtuele werkelijkheid door het gebruik van sociale werelden. in: Kubit ( Available at ).

Bruin., Bruin, D-J. de (2000). Toepassingen van sociale Virtuele Werelden op het Internet. In: Kubit (Available at ).

Bruin, J. de, Bruin, D-J. de (2001). Sociale Virtuele Werelden: Bezien vanuit een sociologisch en beleids- en organisatiewetenschappelijk perspectief.In: Kubit (Available at

Damer, B., Kekenes, C, Hoffman, T. (1995).  Inhabited DigitalSpaces. Published in ACM CHI ’96 Companion, page 9.

Damer, B. (1996).  Inhabited Virtual Worlds, in ACM interactions. Sept-Oct. : p.  27.

Damer, B. (1998). Avatars!: Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet. Berkeley: Peachpit Press.

Damer, B. (1999), A Postmortem on VRML, or why it is important to stay close to the user (Available at ).

D sing, K. (1986). Die Teleologie in Kants Weltbegriff, Kantstudien, Ergänzungshefte. Bonn: Grundmann.

Hedberg, B., G. Dahlgren, J. Hansson, and N-G. Olve (1997). Virtual Organizations and Beyond: Discover Imaginary Systems. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Kim, Amy Jo (2000). Community Building on the Web. Berkeley: Peachpit Press.

Parsons, T. (1937), The Structure of Social Action: A Study in Social Theory with Special Reference to a Group of Recent European Writers.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Parsons, T. (1966). Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Ray, T. S. (1994). An evolutionary approach to synthetic biology: Zen and the art of creating life. Artificial Life 1(1/2): 195-226. Reprinted in : Langton, C. G. [ed.] (1995), Artificial Life:  an overview. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Rheingold, H. (1993). The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Addison-Wesley.

Schroeder, R. (ed) (2002). The Social Life of Avatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments. London: Springer.

Qvortrup, L. (ed.) (2001). Virtual Interaction: Interaction in Virtual Inhabited 3D Worlds. London: Springer.

[1] The concept of ‘virtual community’ is important because it underlines a ‘social reality’ in Cyberspace.  Virtual communities can be built in 3D Inhabited Virtual Worlds, but that is not necessary: text-based virtual communities can also flourish.  Books such as Amy Ko Kim’s Community Building on the Web (2000) are informative, but lay down only the prerequisites of social community, without going into the topic of ‘virtual societies’ and the development of these societies.

[2] In speaking about IVWs, the expression ‘evolutionary’ is often used. The meaning ‘evolutionary’ is normally that some biological model is used (Ray, 1994). We employ this expression for societies as social entities.

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