Virtual Worlds Timeline

HUMlab is getting involved in a very interesting project on the origins and evolution of social virtual worlds together with Bruce Damer and others. Project title: Virtual Worlds Timeline: The Origins and Evolution of Social Virtual Worlds. I have reported on the project briefly before, but here I provide a more elaborate description and some reflections. In a way, this blog post corresponds to Bruce’s position piece on the newly established website.

In August 2006, Bruce mentioned his idea of a project of this kind in September based on his experience and a very rich historical material (truly unique) and connections, the idea of using a wiki, and inviting anyone interested to participate and contribute content. HUMlab expressed interest in being involved (as kind of “home” for the project) as we have done a fair bit of work in different kinds of social worlds and have a strong research interest in this area. One of the things that have interested me for a long time is the history of these worlds in relation to both our own projects and more generally. For instance, I am happy for the screenshots and filmclips we collected over the years from the Virtual Weddings Project (started in 1999). Here is a screenshot:

We are also working on several projects which involve concept-based, collaborative interfaces. Relative and thematic maps for instance.

Since August last year Bruce and I have talked a fair bit and we have a better sense of the project now. Of course, this is a good time to start a project like this since virtual worlds have become very topical lately. One national indication is two articles published in Sweden’s largest morning newspaper a few days ago (Dagens Nyheter, article 1 and 2 in Swedish).

Goals of the project? Well here are some:

  • Provide historical context to current developments in the realm of social virtual worlds
  • Collect and archive rich and diverse material and make it easily available
  • Give thematic and chronological entry points and structures for understanding the origin and evolution of social virtual worlds
  • Create an innovative interface with a high degree of playability and pliability
  • Invite intense collaborative creating through the use of wikis and other participatory media and through interconnecting these with fluid graphical representations

Any project of this kind will have to deal with thinking about what kind of history to present: what to include and not, general delimitations, thematic foci, taxonomies, ontologies, curational strategies etc. For instance, there has often been a split (it seems to me) between virtual world research and research into massively multiplayer games. Looking at the material and what is already out there, it seems to me that it makes sense to focus on social virtual worlds and not on computer games. This does not mean that we should not relate to games, of course, but that is not the focus of the project.

Personally, I would also be interested in relating to some of the critical discourse surrounding these worlds, and maybe a timeline or wiki could include information about relevant discussions or key points – may they relate to creating virtual worlds or analyzing them critically. It would also be great to invite HUMlab visitors and prolific thinkers such as Bryan Alexander, TL Taylor, Lesley Shield, Constance Steinkuehler and others to reflect and contribute.

The project is really promising and, in a way, it is a perfect case study for doing important historical, curatorial and critical work in relation to a rich domain of native digital media and experience. The project also presents a challenge to digital humanities not only relating to the above points but also including issues of media managment and buidling a scalable and sustainable distributed cyberinfrastructure.

And fortunately there is quite a bit of source material available. A considerable part of it (I imagine) can be found in this plastic box.

About 3,000 hours of digitalized virtual world video among other things!. I am really looking forward to working on this project and to working with excellent people like the inimitable and excellent Bruce, his vast network and everyone interested in contributing.

Added note: There is an interesting discussion on the history of virtual worlds going on at Terra Nova.