Defining and Understanding Virtual Worlds

By Karl M. Kapp, Ed.D.


It is enough to make a learning professional’s head spin. Every day there is a new story about online worlds providing new learning environments. Articles and books are suddenly appearing to describe how a generation raised on video games is invading the workplace and demanding new online learning environments. Unfortunately, for those not on the bleeding edge of game technologies, all this talk of virtual worlds, avatars, MMORPGs, metaverses, and microworlds seems right out of a science fiction novel and, in some cases, it is.

Here are a few examples. Cisco Systems, the company that creates internet networks, has developed a training island in the virtual 3-dimensional world known as Second Life. The training island has classrooms, areas for students to mix and mingle and a teleportation system. Learners move around the large virtual campus, by sitting on a teleporter and magically appearing at a desired location.

IBM, the computer consulting company, has launched a number of workplace learning initiatives within Second Life as well. They are exploring how to conduct new employee orientation in virtual environments and how to establish a mentoring process within these new worlds. It is not uncommon to see two virtual people fly overhead discussing business issues as the 3D world passes underneath.

Corporate initiatives are simply following the lead of academics who have been staking real claims in cyberspace for some time. There are over 70 colleges and universities that have campuses or classrooms in Second Life. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has funded a number of virtual projects through the work of the VITAL Laboratory at Ohio University. These online learning environments are filled with avatars roaming around the classroom conducting virtual experiments and applying real world principles to online objects.

But Second Life is not the only virtual world available. At some universities economic courses are conducted using the virtual economy of the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Game (MMOLRPG) World of Warcraft. In World of Warcraft, students witness economic principles at work in real time as residents of the world buy, sell and trade such goods as Powerful Mojo, Blasting Powder, Devilsaw Leather and Black Vitriol. The students study macroeconomic forces in a confined area and then extrapolate those results to the actual economy.

Learning professionals are left in the unenviable position of trying to sort it all out. What is the difference between a metaverse and a MMORPG? What is an avatar? Is Second Life a MMORPG? Is there an online world built specifically for learning? This article will familiarize you with some of the terms and discusses how 3D worlds operate and function and how they just might be the future of e-learning.

Defining the Online Worlds

One of the first things to understand is the difference between a simulation and an online world. The primary difference is that in simulations only one person is interacting with the software at a time. You encounter a virtual character like a doctor and he or she responds to you based on a pre-programmed script. While a group may all help make decisions while observing the learner navigating through the simulation, the person is only interacting online with the program behind the simulation.

In an online world, multiple learners are “inside the simulation” at the same time. You can either interact with the pre-programmed items in the world or interact with other learners or instructors who are also in that world. The online world becomes the environment in which learners interact and respond to one another.

To complicate matters even further, there are several different types of online worlds and some environments with multiple learners are called simulations. However, more descriptive label exists for those types of environments.

Having an awareness of the differences among virtual worlds and the impact they have on learners will help you make intelligent choices about which of these online worlds you might want to deploy. There are three major categories of online worlds. These are Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Games (MMORPG), Metaverses, and Massively Multi-Learner Online Learning Environments (MMOLE).

MMORPG—Massively Multiplayer Online Role Play Game.

In an MMORPG the player assume a role and identity not typically related to his or her real world self and attempts to earn points to move to a higher level within the game. Players become magicians, knights, priests or warriors with special powers and interact within a persistent online world. Once a role is assumed, the player embarks on adventures or quests with a team, guild or clan. They seek treasure, battle monsters or accomplish other specific goals and objectives which are an inherent part of the world.

These worlds are also inhabited by Non-Player Characters (NPCs) which are also known as a bots (presumably short for robot) or agents (like Agent Smith in The Matrix). These are NPCs are not controlled by people but are actually programs that are designed to look like characters in the game but are designed perform certain tasks or play a limited role such as providing a clue to the treasure. NPCs operate based on pre-programmed logic.

For example, in many online role-play games there are NPC who can be defeated to earn points or to gain wealth.


Figure 1: Teaming up to defeat Ragnaros, the god of fire, in the MMORPG War of Warcraft.

Defeating these NPCs helps a player to earn points and progress to the highest level in the game. Three well known examples of MMORPGs are World of Warcraft, Runescape and Everquest.

Most MMORPGs require players to work together to achieve their goals. In World of Warcraft, a variety of players all with different skills and roles to achieve success in many of the quests. For example, to defeat Ragnaros, a giant seething fire god and one of the games signature foes, you need a guild of about 40 people who assume rules such as mages, hunters, healers, warlocks, or priests.

Each player involved in the attack of Ragnaros performs a different task. The tasks are related and are interdependent. For example, a warrior may be doing battle and receiving a high level of damage but be kept alive by a spell cast by a mage.

MMORPGs are used to each concepts related to the real world through examples. It is possible to completely corner a market in an MMORPG and then observe the repercussions where that is not possible in real life. Once can also observe interactions between and among players to understand teamwork, group goals and other social type interactions. However the fantasy aspects of most MMORPGs make it difficult to apply the use of these games within a work setting.


Metaverse is a term coined in 1992 by Neal Stephenson's in his science fiction novel Snow Crash. The term embodies Stephenson's vision of how a virtual reality-based internet might evolve in the future. It has now come to represent the idea of an online 3D world inhabited by avatars controlled by their real-life counterparts.
An avatar is how a person represents him or herself in the virtual world. The word avatar is said to be a Sanskrit word meaning the incarnation of a form of god on earth. While this may have been the original meaning, the term now represents the virtual figure a learner decides to create to interact in the 3D world.

In most online environments, the player has the ability to change or alter his or her avatar which can be 2D or 3D. These alterations typically include body shape, clothes, and hair style. Avatars are controlled through the computer keyboard and/or mouse. They are able to move independently through the virtual environment controlled by their real life owner. In the simplest terms, the avatar is an online version of the person who inhabits the metaverse.


Figure 2: Attending a class in the metaverse Second Life.

A metaverse is similar to an MMORPG but with some big differences. First, in a metaverse, players are not playing a defined role such as a hunter or mage, they are playing a character they have created.

Second, the metaverse typically does not have specific goals or objectives created by the metaverse itself. Players can create their own goals or objectives but they are not an inherent part of the world.

Third the environment of a metaverse typically allows the player to create his or her own digital items such as houses and clothes using a scripting language or by dragging and dropping items. Because of the ability to create your own things in a metavers, these environments typically involve the exchange of some type of currency tied to real-world dollars. A person in a metaverse can buy, sell or trade digital assets that are created by themselves or others and then exchange the virtual currency for real-world currency.

Perhaps the best known example of a metaverse is Second Life. However, Second Life is not the only metaverse commercially available. Other worlds exist with names like Active Worlds and There. In fact, there is an organization called the Open Source Metaverse Project which is actively promoting a free, open source version of a metaverse.

A metaverse environment can be used for training purposes. As mentioned in the opening of this article IBM and Cisco have both established classroom spaces within a metaverse for training purposes. It is also possible to create create other learning environments in which people can interact to learn about items in 3D. One can imagine providing instruction on how to repair a laptop through a virtual tour of the laptop within the metaverse.

MMOLE-Massively Multi-learner Online Learning Environment

One of the newest online worlds is one specifically created for learning. These worlds have been called Virtual Learning Worlds (VLWs) and Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs) but the term that best captures this environment is Massively Multi-learner Online Learning Environment (MMOLE).

The MMOLE is a genre of a computer generated learning environment in which large numbers of learners interact with each other in a virtual three-dimensional (3D) world with the specific goal of learning. The learning can occur formally through a class-like environment or through a scripted scenario (like a role play). In that way it is like a MMORPG since it has specific goals. However, the learning can also occur informally through chats and discussions among learners in a fashion similar to a metaverse. So the MMOLE is a combination of a metaverse and a MMORPG designed for learning.

MMOLEs typically have two modes, one for an instructor and one for the learners. The instructor mode allows someone to facilitate a learning event and to manage the interactions within the environment. This prevents everyone from chatting at once and provides a formal environment in which to learn. It allows the learning to be managed.


Figure 3: Examining a truck in MMOLE of ProtoSphere

But managed learning is not the only kind of learning that can or should occur in a MMOLE. The fact that avatars can roam around the virtual space and interact with each other through pre-programmed jesters, Voice of Internet Protocol or text chats means that the environment can foster and encourage informal learning.

One example of such a MMOLE is ProtoSphere. A product created by ProtonMedia, a Philadelphia-area e-learning development firm. The ProtoSphere environment contains several elements that make it effective for learning. These elements include linkages to Learning Management Systems, the ability to link to traditional e-learning courses from within the world and the programming for tracking learner outcomes on specific events. Additionally, there is a learner profiling system that matches learners with each other in terms of interest and knowledge. This networking aspect facilitates informal learning within the learning environment.

There is also a group working on combining the open-source learning management system, Moodle with Second Life to create a link between the two software platforms to track learning. This effort is called Sloodle and is still in its infancy.


Virtual worlds have a great potential for knowledge transfer. Learners can interact within the environment of an MMORPG and learn about team work and communication, they can build a virtual classroom in a metaverse. Or attend classes in a MMOLE.

The potential of virtual worlds is exciting especially when combined with the upcoming gamer generation’s focus on video games and electronic learning environments. As professionals in the field of learning and development it will be our job to separate the hype from fact and to properly design these worlds so learners benefit from this new technology.