[ Playing God and Government ]
Guidelines for fostering growth within Creative Virtual Worlds
By Keir Clyne
- Section 1 - Definitions (Virtual Worlds and Virtual Swords)
- Section 2 - Content Creation Tools (Blocks, Assets and the English Language)
- Section 3 - The user / developer relationship (Lords, Gods and Governments)
- Section 4 - Common Problems (Griefing and Property Rights)
As an introverted child of the internet with a wild imagination and a love for city building games, it was only a matter of time before I found Virtual Worlds. Although I’ve moved between several in my time, I always think back to my first virtual world. IMVU is an “avatar-based social network where shared experiences build deeper friendships, creativity counts and all relationship’s matter”(IMVU, 2020) or so IMVU’s ‘about’ page states.
My memories of IMVU were that of making friends of all different backgrounds in virtual spaces many of them created, from the environment, buildings and furniture to the clothes and accessories on their avatars. It was a formative experience which made me extremely interested in how these online communities form and how they are able to produce such detailed and creative content seemingly just for their own enjoyment. And as such I have always wanted to create my own virtual world, but to do so it is important to look at what makes a successful virtual world and how you create a system which allows people to create such remarkable and beautiful things.
This essay will act as a set of guidelines for anyone interested in making or developing creative Virtual Worlds. This will be done by exploring the design choices developers make to foster creative growth and stability within their communities by using real world examples from established virtual worlds such as Second Life, Minecraft and IMVU. Finally a conclusion will lay out a condensed list of these guidelines. Throughout this essay I will use the term “world/s” as synonymous with “virtual world/s”
Section One - Definitions (Virtual Worlds and Virtual Swords)
The term “Virtual World” is contested among academics as most words are. As such this section will be used to define what is “Virtual”, what is a “Virtual World” and what is a “Creative Virtual World”.
“Virtual” - For this essay, I will define this term as “something which is displayed, simulated or accessed using computational means”. For example if you display an image of a sword on your computer screen, that sword is virtual.
“Virtual World” - To define this term I will be using some classifications laid out by Richard Bartle (a game theorist who, among other things, created an early text based virtual world called MUD) in his book “Designing Virtual Worlds”. These classifications go as follows:
- The world has underlying, automated rules that enable players to effect changes to [the world itself]
- Players represent individuals in the world [...]
- Interaction with the world takes place in real time [...]
- The world is shared [...]
- The world is [...] persistent
“ (Bartle, 2003).
To explain these classifications in more detail, a virtual world has to have a set of rules (normally in the form of code) which allow users to interact with and change the world itself. This may be as simple as allowing them to move their avatar within this world to as complex as letting users create objects which are then represented within the world.
Players represent individuals within this world with it being commonplace that individuals are represented using an avatar (which is a graphical representation of the user within the world). These avatars may have a likeness to the user themselves but it is normal for users to experiment with the look and aesthetics of their avatar as a form of creativity and expression.
Interaction within this world takes place in real time. It is common for these individual interactions to happen for everyone else within the world. For instance if you open a virtual door in the world then the door would be displayed as open for everyone else within the world.
Finally, the world is persistent. This means that the world continues to exist for a long and sustained period of time. For example it doesn't matter which or how many users leave the world, their changes and interactions will continue to exist as long as the world’s server remains active.
Although these classifications work for a large amount of Virtual Worlds, they are not all required for a world to be classified as a “Virtual World”. For example:
- Individuals may share avatars and thus not be represented individually
- Although most servers are persistent, some undergo extreme changes such as resetting the server or removing large parts of the world for reasons like server crashes and updates.
- Some individual interactions with objects may not display on other users computers. This is normally done to make the world run faster for both the developer and the user. For example a user may open a door and the door would not be displayed as open for any other user, this means the server doesn’t need to tell each user that the door should be displayed open allowing the server and the user’s computer to communicate easier. Another example would be allowing users to disable certain interactions allowing their computer to run the world faster, this is common in a lot of worlds.
It is also important to note that there are some possible flaws in these classifications such as:
- Richard Bartle’s classifications for Virtual Worlds is mostly based on research into textaural worlds rather than graphical ones (As the MUD world he made was completely text based). But I believe that these classifications hold up even with graphical worlds as they deal with the systems behind them and not their aesthetics.
- These classifications could work for certain Tabletop Roleplaying Games and other non-virtual examples, but in this essay we are specifically talking about “virtual” worlds.
“Creative Virtual World” - Finally it is important for this essay to define the specific type of Virtual Worlds we will be exploring. Whilst the previously stated classifications can apply to various types of worlds (such as Online Multiplayer Games, Graphical Social Networks and the aforementioned Tabletop Role Playing Games) I will be defining a “Creative Virtual World” as “A Virtual World where users form a community which focuses on the creation of content made by users using tools created or supplied by the developers”.
This definition applies to various established Virtual Worlds such as Second Life and IMVU as well as some more unorthodox worlds such as Nationstates (A forum, text based Virtual World in which users create their own nations).
This definition also helps us establish this “creativity” difference in some Online Multiplayer Games. For example World of Warcraft wouldn’t pass this classification because although players come together to form a community in a persistent and interactable world, the content in this world is created solely by the developer. On the other hand Minecraft would pass this classification as although some of its content is created by the developer (Such as terrain generation and NPC’s) it also has tools created by the developers which allow you to create content such as it’s simple “block” system (which allows you to create and destroy blocks to build objects) and modding (which allows you to add and change the fundamental code of the world).
Section 2 - Content Creation Tools (Blocks, Assets and the English Language)
I would argue that the most important design choice a Virtual World’s developer can make is how they structure and implement their content creation tools.
Following my definition of “Creative Virtual Worlds” in section 1, the core focus of these worlds is giving the user a set of tools which allow them to create the objects they want to help populate and construct the world in their vision. To do this, most developers of these worlds either implement a “building blocks” style of content creation or they make their world compatible with pre-existing content creation tools.
The “building blocks” system is implemented, for example, in both Minecraft and Second Life. In Minecraft users are given a predefined set of cubes (known as “blocks”) which they can place together to form the representation of objects such as houses, cars or islands whereas Second Life has a system (similar to 3D modelling applications like Blender and Fusion 360) which uses primitives (basic 3D shapes like cubes, cylinders and cones) which you can place, rotate, scale and attach to other primitives (among other actions).
Although there is a slight learning curve (as there is with any creation tool), the “building blocks” system is relatively easy for a user to learn and start using through the use of intuitive actions such as placing and moving. Plus it has the potential to let users create more complex objects as they gain experience using the provided tools. This gives the system an “easy to learn, hard to master” quality which makes it accessible to a large demographic from young children to adults (which you see in Minecraft) and for users who might not have prior experience in virtual world content creation such as educational or corporate staff (which you see in Second Life).
The “building block” system doesn’t even need to use specialist software created by the developer. For example the text-based world “NationStates” uses the English language to allow users to create their content (which in this case is descriptions of interactions, experiences and the nations that they are roleplaying). This means that the ease of entry is even smoother for users allowing them to start creating content straight away.
The other common system used for content creation tools is by using pre-existing tools. Minecraft and Second Life do this but in separate ways.
Minecraft allows modding support to it’s world. This means that users can add or change code within their own Minecraft worlds to change the way the world operates or to aid in the default “building blocks” content creation tool. For example a popular Minecraft mod called “MCEdit” allows users to make large scale changes to the world such as removing a large amount of blocks or duplicating their created objects. Another example is a Minecraft mod which disables the user’s ability to swear in a Minecraft World. These mods can allow the user’s to moderate and govern themselves as a sort of proxy-developer (which I will explore further in section 3). Modding support is very powerful for the user in this case because it allows them to not only change the way content is created in this world but it also allows changes to the fundamental way the world operates.
On the other hand, Second Life allows you to import assets (pre-constructed objects) from pre-existing 3D modelling software such as Blender and Fusion 360. This allows users to make more complex and detailed objects in a way which would be much slower or sometimes not possible using the developer provided “building blocks” system. As an additional bonus this means that users can create objects with 3D modelling software and use them within several different worlds that allow you to import assets. For example you could theoretically create a table object and put it both in Second Life and IMVU with minor changes between each.
Finally, developers can limit certain freedoms within content creation tools to help construct an aesthetic for the world.
For example in Minecraft the game is created using “blocks” meaning that even though you could build something which looks like a house or a castle, it will have a very “blocky” aesthetic to it, one which is now widely recognised as Minecraft’s aesthetic. Additionally, Minecraft comes preset with it’s own default ‘texture pack’ which textures each block with a pre-created design, such as wood bark or grass (although users can choose to create their own ‘texture packs’ if they wish). By limiting how objects can be constructed allows the developer to have some control over the general aesthetics of the world which in turn can create a type of “brand recognition” to help the world stand out from its competitors.
Section 3 - The user / developer relationship (Lords, Gods and Governments)
Although content creation tools are one of the key systems within Virtual Worlds, it is important to remember that the users are the ones using these tools to generate content and help grow these worlds, or as Bakioglu (a virtual worlds researcher) puts it: “The understanding is that [users] shape technology and extend the [world’s] mechanics through their participation”.
This means that by participating within this world, users will have problems or suggestions which will sometimes need to be considered by the developers to enhance the users experience within the world. For instance a common suggestion from users fixing certain bugs which may cause the world to crash. Unfortunately not all user requests are as simple or as straightforward as changing the code to fix a bug. Because these worlds facilitate a community of users, the developer has to make a choice of how they deal with problems such as users intentionally harassing other users or implementing mechanics within the world which might disrupt the activities of certain users. Because of this developers need to find a structure in which to consider (and sometimes even debate) user requests. This is normally referred to as how the developer ‘governs’ their Virtual World and their style of governance can have a huge affect on the user’s experience within the world.
Richard Bartle (a virtual worlds theorist and practitioner) states that “developers should not be considered as governments [but rather] gods of their own creations”(Bartle, 2006). Bartle here is referring to how he believes that developers should be able to implement the changes they wish without consulting or debating with their users to allow themselves greater freedom to develop their world. The problem with this type of governance is that whilst this could work if there were a limited number of Virtual Worlds for users to choose from (which was the case when Bartle and his co-worker Roy Trubshaw developed the MUD Virtual World in 1978), during current times (2020) there are a huge amount of Virtual Worlds for users to choose between. This forces developers to be more “democratic [with their worlds] because users can “vote with their feet””(Rolfes and Passig, 2019) and choose to leave their current world for a new one if they don’t feel like their experience is being enhanced by the developer. Of course the problem with this is that users “contribute to the virtual world [...] through creation and investment of time and money [which can lead to] a troubled relationship with their [users who are] also their customers”(De Zwart, 2009). This fear of losing invested time, money and social connections can sometimes cause a user to stay within a world which is not enhancing their experience which in time may lead to unhappy users damaging the world’s brand through bad reviews or even sometimes legal action (which I will discuss in Section 4).
Because of this developers need to make clear decisions on how they want their world to be governed. For example:
- In Minecraft, the developers created a system where users can choose to create their own worlds (known as servers) which they can choose to govern in any way they wish. This combined with the user’s ability to add or remove desired features using mods (as discussed in section 2) means that users of Minecraft are more independant and distanced from the wants of the developers than in other virtual worlds.
- Although not technically a Creative Virtual World (by my definition), Runescape developers have a very interesting way of governing their world. This is done through the ‘polls’ system which allows players to vote upon changes developers have proposed making within the world. Each proposed change needs at least 75% of voters to agree with the changes to pass which makes this method of governance highly democratic whilst allowing the player population to feel like their requests are being heard and responded to.
- Worlds like Second Life and IMVU have a more hands off approach. Both use online forums in order to gain suggestions or user requests but there is little information to whether the developers take on these requests. Although this allows the developers greater freedom to change the world how they wish, it can lead to problems with users feeling like their voices aren’t being heard.
- In the world 2builders2tools (a user hosted Minecraft server often known as “2b2t”) the developer (known commonly as “Hausmaster”) decided to govern using ‘anarchy’. This means that the world allows all types of activity including harassment of players, swearing and even hacking. Although these activities may be off-putting for some users, establishing the world from the start as an ‘anarchic server allows users to tell straight away whether to choose or reject the world based on their own interests.
What we can take away from this is that there are many different governance styles which developers can use all with positives and negatives. One governance style is to mimic those found in the physical world such as dictatorships (through not listening to user requests and just making changes to the world how the developer wishes) to democracies (through allowing voting on developer and user proposed changes to the world). Developers can also choose to let users govern their own worlds as long as they give them the tools to do so. Also by establishing the type of governance early you can allow users to make more informed choices on if they want to join your world or not.
Section 4 - Common Problems (Griefing and Property Rights)
When creating a virtual world it is likely developers will encounter some common problems. Below are some examples and how to deal with them.
“Griefing” - A common definition of greifing is the “intentional harassment of other players” (Bakioğlu, 2012) which can be anything from swearing at users to destroying other users' created objects. When it comes to griefing, developers can either create tools to mitigate it or to actually facilitate it. For example it is common for Minecraft worlds to use mods that prevent common forms of griefing including the aforementioned swearing or destruction of other user’s objects, although (as I explored in section 3) some Minecraft worlds such as 2b2t use griefing as a central focus allowing users to explore what Bakioglu (a virtual world researcher) calls “greif play”(Bakioğlu, 2012)
“Legal Action” - Due to Virtual Worlds often becoming an extension of a user’s physical lives (with them investing time, money and social relationships in these worlds as discussed in section 3), some players have resorted to legal action when faced with problems with the developer. For instance, the case of “Bragg vs Linden” (Nino, 2020) had Bragg (a longtime user of Second Life) find their user account disabled after Linden Labs (the creators of Second Life) found them to be using a tactic called “URL-Hacking” to both buy land they weren’t supposed to be able to buy whilst doing it at a significantly discounted price. As far as I’m aware this case wouldn’t have any legal standing if the dispute was just based on the loss their account alone, but because Bragg had spent an estimated $4,000 to $6,000 on virtual objects (Nino, 2020), which were tied to their account, the termination of it meant they had also lost their monetary investment in this world. Although legal action isn’t common with most virtual worlds, it is important to note it does happen especially when users can invest ‘real world’ money into these virtual worlds.
Overall, there are many decisions developers have to make in order to foster creative growth within their Creative Virtual Worlds, with most of these decisions not being as straightforward as they seem whilst potentially having a huge impact on the experience users will have within their worlds. Because of this my guidelines for these developers would be to:
- Develop powerful and accessible content creation tools which allow users to easily create objects as well as, potentially, alter the way the world works.
- Consider allowing users to create content or alter the world using pre-existing pieces of software.
- Consider limiting the power or style of these content creation tools to allow your world to have a distinct “look” to stand out from its competitors.
- Choose a style of governance from the start which compliments the community you want to create.
- Consider creating tools to allow users to govern and change the world themselves, either in an anarchic or democratic way.
- Consider the forms of interaction and activities you want to be the core of your world and design your content creation tools and world around that (for example grief play, community creativity, etc)
- Be cautious when allowing users to have a ‘real world’ monetary investment in your world as this could lead to legal action if problems with your world arise.
“Virtual” - Something which is displayed, simulated or accessed through computational means”
“Avatar” - The graphical representation of an individual user in a virtual world
“Server” - The software which runs the code needed to store and maintain the Virtual World
“Client” - For most Virtual Worlds, users access the world by using a specialised piece of software called a “client” which allows users to view and interact with the world. These clients are normally made by the developer but some are made by users or a third-party.
“NPC” - This stands for “non player character” and these are entities which populate the world and can include virtual humans, animals, etc.
“Modding” - The ability to change the code (rules) of the world.
“Assets” - Pre-created objects which can be brought into these worlds.
Bartle, R., 2003. Designing Virtual Worlds. 1st ed. Berkeley: New Riders Publishing:
The author and researcher uses this book to outline and detail the central principles within Virtual Worlds and their design. This book continues to explore the attached topics of Virtual worlds including in-world politics, word design and user interaction (among others) extensively. Although this book was first printed in 2003 (a long time ago in technological terms) and is based around the author’s experience helping to create one of the first Virtual Worlds (in 1987) which was text based and not graphical like contemporary (2020) Virtual Worlds, a lot of the explorations and principles in this book still apply to modern day Virtual Worlds.
Rolfes, L. and Passig, K., 2019. The Proto-Governance of Minecraft Servers. Journal For Virtual Worlds Research, 12(3):
The authors and researchers from the University of Berlin explore the way Minecraft server hosters choose to govern their worlds. This is done by comparing several real world examples of Minecraft servers and using real world governance terminology to explain how they govern. This is done through the analysis of 13 publicly accessible written rulesets of these Minecraft servers. They conclude by stating that most of these servers are either run as ‘benevolent dictatorships’ where the server host’s word is law or as ‘Constitutional Monarchies’ where rulesets are in place to limit the power of the server host and chosen moderators of the server.
Bakioğlu, B., 2012. Negotiating governance in virtual worlds: grief play, hacktivism, and LeakOps inSecond Life®. New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 18(4):
The author and researcher from Lawrence University (USA) explores the ways that ‘grief play’ can be a tool for good within Virtual Worlds. This is done through the investigation of an event in Second Life between two in-game organisations of the Justice League Unlimited and The Wrong Hands with the latter survelling the former. The author also references several Skype interviews they conducted with participants of Second Life and this event.
Bakioğlu, B., 2012. Negotiating governance in virtual worlds: grief play, hacktivism, and LeakOps inSecond Life®. New Review of Hypermedia and Multimedia, 18(4), pp.237-259.
Bartle, R. 2006. View Of Why Governments Aren't Gods And Gods Aren't Governments | First Monday. [online] Available at:
Bartle, R. 2003. Designing Virtual Worlds. 1st ed. Berkeley: New Riders Publishing, pp.3-4
De Zwart, M., 2009. Piracy vs Control: Various Models of Virtual World Governance and their impact on Player Experience. Journal For Virtual Worlds Research, 2(3).
IMVU. 2020. IMVU - Official Website - World's Largest 3D Avatar Chat Game.. [online] Available at:
Nino, T., 2020. Bragg Vs Linden Lab - The Story So Far - Second Life Insider. [online] Web.archive.org. Available at:
Rolfes, L. and Passig, K., 2019. The Proto-Governance of Minecraft Servers. Journal For Virtual Worlds Research, 12(3).