Last week, YouTuber Strasz released a 30-minute video essay that’s part documentary and part love letter to a pioneering virtual world that he was once a fond and active member of, called Active Worlds.
Consisting mostly of first-person coverage of his exploration of AW, it’s a fascinating look at what many people (myself included) consider to be the first virtual world with user-generated content—launched way back in 1995, well before Second Life debuted in 2003! Although AW never reached the success of SL, it was still a pioneering virtual world, where users could set up an avatar, build anything they wanted, and form communities.
What is so interesting about Active Worlds, besides its longevity, is that unlike websites which eventually get taken down and discarded, much of the original construction from its earliest days still remains in place, much like a prehistoric insect trapped in amber for scientists to pore over. I think it’s a wonderful documentary, and I can recommend it highly if you’re interested in the early history of the metaverse.
As I mentioned, Active Worlds still exists today, at the ripe old age of 27 (although it has a daily user base in the single digits). You can create an account, download the client software, and explore! Here’s the website. You can also see all my blogposts about Active Worlds here (including this one).
This evening, I thought I would start working on a task I have put off for far, far too long: organizing my comprehensive list of social VR platforms and virtual worlds (almost 150 entries) into some better semblance of order. (And, in some cases, provide an overdue status update. For example, I had forgotten to remove my note that Decentraland was not yet open to the public after their February 2020 launch.)
I hope to be able to come with a classification scheme, a taxonomy where similar platforms are grouped together. But how to do this grouping? Where to start?
Well, we could start by taking a look at the oldest, so-called “first generation” section first: the virtual worlds that can only be accessed via desktop on a flat monitor, the so-called “pancake worlds” that do not support virtual reality.
This list could further be divided by whether the virtual world was sill operating or was dead. Sometimes, you are lucky enough to get an official “Closed” sign when you visit their website, like with The Deep when you visit their website.
But of course, not all virtual world projects are so clear-cut as “closed” or “open”; “dead” or “alive”. Think of all those projects in between, that may be stuck in some sort of software development hell, or slowly circling the drain, or on life support at best. Let’s call those “Questionable Status / Stalled / Moribund” as a catch-all category.
In drawing up this first list, I will be removing any products which are clearly more MMO/MMORPG games instead of open-ended worlds (although the line between those is also frustratingly blurry at times). I’m also not going to bother with primarily adult/sex-oriented worlds such as Utherverse/Red Light Center, although I do know that some people do use this type of virtual world for non-sexual socializing. If it’s marketed as a word primarily for virtual sex, I’m not interested, sorry!
“Pancake Worlds” (Virtual Worlds That Do NOT Support Virtual Reality)
NeoWorld (another blockchain-based virtual world…seeing a trend here?)
Looking at this list of virtual worlds that do not support users in VR headsets, several thoughts on other ways to organize it come to mind:
We could easily pull out the many blockchain-based virtual worlds into a separate list
We could pull out Second Life and all the OpenSim-based virtual worlds (e.g. Avacon, Kitely) into a separate list
We could put Active Worlds and Virtual Paradise in their own category, too
Some products, like Avakin Life and IMVU, have literally dozens of similar products, all pitched at the teen/tween market (another category I do not wish to cover on this blog)
Another interesting point is that many of these “pancake worlds” are older (and some quite old), with an exception: the brand-new, blockchain-based virtual worlds such as Decentraland and The Sandbox. I find it interesting that many of the companies building blockchain-based platforms decided to avoid virtual reality completely (although, of course, many did include VR support in their products, as we shall see in the next blogpost I make about my progress in constructing a taxonomy).
Anyway, I thought I would publish this work-in-progress to the blog, for my readers to comment on. Which of the products in the Questionable Status category should be declared well and truly dead, and given a decent burial? What products were you surprised to see here, or surprised at how I categorized them? What ideas do you have about to go about the Herculean task of organizing them into categories?
Torley Linden, a longtime Linden Lab staff member, tells some very funny stories of how he used to regularly get kicked off Active Worlds (the grand-daddy of virtual worlds) for talking about Second Life to the residents there.
Well, guess what? I posted a link to my survey in the Active Worlds Discord channel yesterday, and was promptly banned by the moderator for (gasp!) daring to post a survey that actually mentions other virtual worlds! Heaven forbid!
On top of that, the moderator demanded my Active Worlds username, no doubt to remove me from the platform completely. (Hey, it’s OK, I was finished with it anyway…)
So, although the reader poll runs until the end of this month, I can already announce one award (drumroll, please!): Active Worlds, hands down, for the touchiest, most over-sensitive user community!
Seriously? Get a grip. If you’re so uptight about your virtual world that you can’t even mention competing metaverse products without getting booted, or survey your users about where else they may have accounts, what kind of public relations message does that send? Maintaining a rigid, iron grip on communication is only going to backfire and make you look like a control freak. And an insecure one at that.
(God, I love Giphy… the perfect animated GIF for every occasion!)
Active Worlds* is the granddaddy of virtual worlds. Founded in 1995, it has been in operation for nearly 23 years now. I had visited once before, back in 2010, after reading about its 15th anniversary on Metafilter. But I had lost my login information, so I decided to create a new account and pay Active Worlds a visit. The arrival area looks like this, with a rather ugly-looking bot to greet visitors:
But to my surprise, there were no less than seven other avatars in the default welcome area who were chatting (I had expected it to be deserted). One of the avatars there told me how to pull up a list of worlds to teleport to:
I picked the HeavensStairway world, and there were about seven avatars there as well, and I was actually welcomed by a handful of people! But after a little while, I realized that these avatars were merely bots, as they greeted other newcomers in exactly the same manner.
The avatars/bots are rather primitive compared to Second Life, but serviceable:
Here’s a selfie of my default male avatar:
There’s a user community called AWPortals.com which you can also join, and I did. There’s only one event coming up, a TGIF Party, to which nobody seems to be planning to attend, according to the message at the bottom of the screen:
There’s also an Active Worlds news website called AWTimes, which is updated bi-monthly (and which is, frankly, one of the most hideously designed websites I’ve seen in a long while). According to the AWTimes, surprisingly, the Active Worlds software has been updated as recently as February 2018.
And tonight, I am dancing with a few others at the TGIF Party at the PrairieHills world! Turned out some other people showed up after all! It would seem that there is still a little bit of life in Active Worlds after all these years…
*Note that when I tried to access the Active Worlds website, Google Chrome gave me a security warning. Apparently, their website security certificate had expired, only yesterday! My timing was perfectly (im)perfect. I decided to bypass the warning and visit the website anyway, but you might feel differently about it: