A brief history of the virtual world

Bruce Damer, the self-proclaimed "Gandalf" of virtual worlds, talks with CNET News.com about the history of 3D social spaces.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
Over the last few years, there has been increasing interest in 3D online games and virtual worlds.

But while these are often lumped together under the rubric of the massively multiplayer online game, many see a clear difference between goal-oriented online games like World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and EverQuest II, and pure virtual worlds like Second Life and There.

Yet, while many players are only hearing of Second Life and There for the first time--as suggested by recent skyrocketing signup numbers--virtual worlds are not a recent development.

In fact, fully 3D social spaces have been around at least since the mid-1980s, and some would argue even longer than that.

With all that in mind, CNET News.com recently invited virtual world historian and DigitalSpace CEO Bruce Damer--who also runs the DigiBarn computer museum in California's Santa Cruz mountains and authored the 1997 book, Avatars--to the CNET bureau in Second Life. There, Damer--known in the virtual world as "Digi Weaver"--shared his personal history with virtual worlds as well as his thoughts on where the environments come from and where they might go.

Q: How did you come to be in the Second Life beta?
Damer: Well, I met Philip Rosedale back in the alpha period. He gave me a great demo of the platform and invited me into the beta. I am kind of a "Gandalf the Grey" of virtual worlds. I've seen all the ages of middle virtual earth.

What is your history with virtual worlds and 3D social spaces?
Damer: Back in 1995 I co-founded an organization called the Contact Consortium. It was all about experimenting with the first virtual worlds platforms that were then appearing on the Net and seeing what would happen. It was a social/creative sandbox time. We were looking at spaces like The Palace, AlphaWorld, WorldsAway, Traveler and Blacksun. It was a heady time, with so many approaches to avatar cyberspace. And so creative, like the period where personal computing was in the 70s.

I am kind of a "Gandalf the Grey" of virtual worlds. I've seen all the ages of middle virtual earth.

What was it about those environments that attracted you?
Damer: It was exciting. We held several real-life conferences about virtual worlds and 3D social spaces. The first one was "Earth to Avatars" in 1996. They were ultra cool, with lots of speakers and parties where everyone dressed up as "their (favorite) avatar." The first two we did in San Francisco and then we moved it into cyberspace. We made a virtual conference hall in ActiveWorlds in 1998. It was a blast. We had 4,000 real visitors in-world and 30 nodes around the world. Each year we experimented with different types of spaces. The first one was like a convention center, then we went to connected domes and then we went fully 3D--no gravity--and met in a virtual space station. Then we did a re-enactment of Kubrick's film 2001 in 2001, and middle earth in 2002 for a (JRR) Tolkien-inspired environment.

What was it like to do these things in 1996 when the technology was still so young and unknown?
Damer: It was amazing. People felt they were inventing a brand new medium, the new medium of the 21st century, and they were right. Everything had to run on 28.8 modems which were fast then. I would demo these worlds at conferences and it would blow people away that this was happening. It was like (Neal Stephenson's novel) Snow Crash or Tron or something to them.

What do you consider the first digital virtual world?
Damer: Well that might have to be Maze War in 1974. It had all the features: multi-user, different points of view, 3D graphics, bots, chat, IM, shooting and scoring. It was more of a game than a social virtual world, but it was still the first avatar space. Maze War was ported to a dozen platforms after the first one and played across the Arpanet in the 70s. It was famous. You can still play it today.

You wrote the book, Avatars. Where does the word "avatar" come from?
Damer: That came from Chip Morningstar while he was working at Lucasfilm creating an environment called Habitat. And he and others tried to figure out how to describe their embodiment in the world, and he took the term from Sanskrit, an ancient human language of India. It means "a god's embodiment on the Earth." In other words, if a god came to Earth, the form they would take is called an avatar.

You've obviously been extremely involved in the development and promotion of these virtual worlds. Why you?
Damer: As a kid I was always building imaginary worlds in my mind. Then on paper as a cartoonist, I would create fantastic cityscapes with vehicles and such, and build them out of sand. Then I got into the Programmed Data Processor computer in 1981 and thought that it could be used to create these worlds in graphics some time in the future. I had visions of avatars and robots, a virtual moonscape. And now I have a company that models robotics for NASA--moon mission designs--which is ironic, as it was a vision I had as an 18-year-old, and poof, one day I wake up and I am doing it for real.

What is your interest in avatars about?
Damer: That's all about human culture, a human face on cyberspace. That's the most fascinating thing of all, don't you think?

They will look at Alphaworld and Second Lifeand think "keystone cops" compared to the worlds of 2036.

Can you give a sort of chronological progression from Maze Wars to Second Life and beyond?
Damer: We are making a wiki with a scrollable timeline which will take you through the whole journey and allow folks to add to the history. But the history is: 1974, Maze War; 1980, multi-user dungeons; 1986, Habitat; 1995, worlds chat and the other platforms; 1999, the chasm and business failures; early 2000s, There, Second Life and others. We're now in what I call the "third generation."

Why do you think these environments matter? I hear a lot of skepticism out there.
Damer: Some criticize the environments by saying they take people away from "real" contact. But for several decades "real" contact has become a complex recipe that includes phone, telex, messages/letters/memos, media, etc. Face-to-face conversation is a smaller and smaller fraction of our communications. I see virtual worlds as bringing us a bit back toward embodied person-to-person conversation but also allowing people to have a creative element--"come visit my cool place, see my cool garb"--so it is more engaging, colorful and expressive.

So what can Second Life and There and other virtual worlds offer that all that real-life stuff can't?
Damer: That's simple: All the cognitive stuff like flying, wild dress, different modes of communications. Hey, it's a bit like Burning Man in here! Of course these environments wear you out cognitively faster and that's a problem--at least for codgers like me. Try navigating around for hours and communicating and see if your brain turns to mush. It is related to a kind of overload tracked by NASA in their extra-vehicular activity training and missions. In always trying to keep track of where you are in space (or a 3D virtual space), you use different parts of your brain than in simple texting, so you can get brain tired--unless you are 11, of course.

Kellie Amiga (from the audience) asks: What impact will virtual worlds like Second Life have on communication? Do you see this as a revolutionary idea, like email?
Damer: I think of virtual worlds as being the only truly new communications medium of the 21st century, combining elements of the phone, teletype, theater, movie making, etc. It's all brand new in human experience. So like film in 1906, we don't see the full impact at this time. They will look at Alphaworld and Second Lifeand think "keystone cops" compared to the worlds of 2036.

Blue Vale (from the audience) asks: Do you think that this will develop into a medium for everyone or will it stay limited to the enthusiasts? And do you see a wide-open standard developing for virtual worlds like the Web?
Damer: That is a tough one. The modes for communications--the market share--is really divided up more than in 1995. You have IMing, texting, massively multiplayer online role playing games and VoIP. There are a lot of ways to be "with" someone in and through cyberspace. So virtual worlds will necessarily get a slice of the pie. The question is, how big a slice? The one issue that virtual worlds have to overcome is the amount of energy and time needed to be invested by users to feel a part of the medium and commit themselves to it for a long period, not just a "look see."