While the panel "Get a Virtual Life: Policy Issues Facing Online Worlds & Game Spaces" at the State of the Net Conference was primarily concerned with how to look at virtual worlds and games from a regulatory and policy perspective, it elucidated the difference between two types of virtual worlds in a manner that is useful for broader research contexts. All virtual worlds are 3-D internet tools where people interact and communicate using avatars, however, some virtual worlds track more faithfully to the real world than others.
Open virtual worlds, like Second Life, are seen as extensions of the real world. In this type of virtual world, a developer creates building blocks of code and a platform, but its users have the freedom to build or create anything they choose within the confines of the world. Users can trade the virtual objects they built for other objects, or for currency, which creates an economy. The users can shape society in whatever way they choose with minimal interference from the code developers/server owners.
Closed virtual worlds, on the other hand, are entirely created by developers rather than by the user. Users may be able to tweak aspects of the world, but usually within very strict parameters. Economies may develop in closed virtual worlds, but those economies are not supported by the developers of the site. An example of a closed virtual world is World of Warcraft. In fact, all mega multiplayer online games are closed virtual worlds.
While the panel lumped virtual worlds into two categories (open or closed) for the purposes of determining government regulation, it may be helpful to look at these two descriptions as polar ends of a continuum of virtual world agency. Already there are virtual worlds that do not fall neatly into either category. As the virtual world space develops and matures, we may see more virtual worlds that support the idea of an open/closed world continuum rather than the open/closed world dichotomy.
This is not an entirely novel idea. Damion Schubert suggested a similar approach in his session, "The Zen of Online Game Design," at the Austin Game Developer’s Conference last August. Instead of a continuum, Schubert advocated using a triangle approach, with world (simulating reality) on one point, game (goals and limitations) on the other point, and community (the social rewards of being in the world) as the third point. He said that online products that hit the middle of the triangle will be the most successful. If game developers take his advice, the government will have an even more difficult time interpreting and regulating this growing online space.