Metaverses – History and Definitions


Note this is an excerpt from my masters dissertation An Inquiry into Designing Metaverses (2021), this is a study into designing and creating multiplayer virtual worlds and connecting those worlds into a wider virtual universe known as a metaverse. hosts a number of these excerpts broken into sections of particular interests. You can find all sections here or feel free to contact me if you would like a copy of the entire original document.


What are Virtual Worlds?

Virtual worlds include both game worlds and digital social worlds. They are online and connected multiplayer spaces. Richard Bartle is regarded as having co-created the first virtual world with the Multi-User-Dungeon (MUD) programme in 1978 (Bartle, 2009).

It is worth noting that both the definition and example of the first virtual world were created by Bartle himself.


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Figure 1 shows as seen in 2021, a MUD-type world that has been operating since 1990.[1] The room being explored is an example of player-generated content.


MUD-type programmes, as seen in figure 1, are entirely text based and have little or no visual element. The mid-1990s saw the arrival of 3D virtual worlds, such as Worlds Chat (1995) by Worlds Inc. These were primarily social worlds, where players would meet and chat. Figure 2 shows Sony SAPIRi, an early 3D virtual world; note that it still has a heavy dependency on 2D and text-based UI elements. Other more gaming-focused virtual worlds, such as Ultima Online, arrived in 1997. Gaming-focused worlds offer more clearly defined objectives for players.

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Figure 2 shows Sony SAPARi, an early 3D virtual world.[2]


Text-based worlds could be modified by players quite easily, however most early 3D worlds had limited capacity for players to modify them. This started to change with games like Minecraft in 2009, where it is possible for the player to modify every aspect of the world. This was made feasible by the game’s use of a voxel-based world structure, although Minecraft does not use voxels to render the world to the player.[3] The simplicity of Minecraft’s world may also have contributed to its success, creating a distinct divide between its world and the real world, affording players a degree of self-reinvention. Since the arrival of modern Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, there have been several virtual worlds aimed at VR users. These worlds include VRChat released in 2014 and JanusVR, also released in 2014, which we will explore later in a case study.

A virtual world is a simulated world. It is different from an imaginary world because it must have some sort of clear definition. This differentiation is described by Bartle in the following way: the real world, “that which is”; an imaginary world, “that which isn’t”; and a virtual world, “that which isn’t, having the form or effect of that which is” (Bartle, 2020).

Bartle also describes a set of requirements for what he calls a true virtual world. First, the world must have defined physics. Physics refer to the way the world functions and the way the player can interact with the world. They should not be confused with the physics of matter. Second, the player must be represented by an individual character in the world. This character does not need to be humanoid, however, it does need to be unique to the player. Third, the world must be live action, in other words, it cannot be turn based. Fourth, the world must be multiplayer; multiple players must be able to inhabit the world. Fifth, the world must be persistent. This means that changes made by a player must remain after the player has left the world. There is some implication here that the world allows the player to modify it. Finally, the world must not be reality; if it is reality then it is not virtual (Bartle, 2004).

An alternative, although related, delimitation is that a world is a perspective. Two possible definitions for world are “someone’s individual way of life or range of experience” and “a particular area of activity” (Chambers, 1999). A person’s world is viewed from within the bounds of their human life. That person might have a pet bird; the bird’s world shares a similar location to the person, however the world it views is quite different. This is relevant because it is helpful to understand that a virtual world is not a virtual location. As we will see later in the section on connecting worlds, a virtual world can take the form of a simulated perspective. A virtual world can be the sum of the locations, objects, interactions, and experiences that a particular player has.


Player-hosted Worlds versus Developer-hosted Worlds

There is a difference between player-hosted virtual worlds, or small servers, and developer-hosted virtual worlds, or big servers. Minecraft is a multitude of many small player-hosted servers, some interconnected, some not. A large game like World of Warcraft is developer-hosted. These two kinds of worlds can have very different traits. Minecraft servers can be player modified, in other words, the players can edit the game’s code to add their own new features. This is called ‘modding’ and may have contributed to Minecraft’s success. Figure 3 shows a Minecraft world which, at first sight, appears standard but which in reality contains modded elements that have been blended seamlessly into the world. In contrast to this, according to the World of Warcraft terms of service, players attempting this form of modding could be banned from the game and face further legal action (Blizzard, 2020).

Some large virtual worlds, such as Roblox, simulate the ability to modify the underlying game code by providing a modifiable or scriptable layer to the world. This layer is typically bound by rules defined by the developer, unlike a truly modifiable game which in theory has no limits. OpenSim is an example of a platform which attempts to remove these limits. Players can modify the underlying code as much as they wish; the risk they face is modifying the code to a point where it’s no longer compatible with other parts of OpenSim.

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Figure 3 shows players in the game Minecraft, which uses a player-modified server. The statue in the right background is not native to the game; these players have all cooperated to modify their games in a compatible way to allow this extra content to exist.


Worlds with Purpose

In many cases a virtual world will have a single purpose, such as to race cars in a racing game or explore dungeons in an adventure game. Minecraft offers potential for more open-ended experiences; however, these experiences still lean towards having a purpose. One example of this is the Minecraft server Magister Craft.[4] This server provides a virtual world that is a simulation of ancient Rome. Interactions with the world are conducted through classical Latin. The world’s purpose is to teach the language and history of Roman civilisation, a purpose that is quite different to the original design of Minecraft.

The idea of purpose could be considered a contrast between a virtual world and a metaverse. A virtual world has a purpose, a metaverse has many purposes.


What is a Metaverse?

“The metaverse is a synchronously shared and persistent three dimensional context where players, embodied as characters, navigate immersivity and interact through direct presence.” (Shah, 2021) This is a definition provided by Duality Robotics, a small studio which receives funding from Epic Games. While concise, this definition does not appear to differ much from the definition of a virtual world. This suggests that there is some confusion as to what exactly a metaverse is.

The original term ‘metaverse’ was coined in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science-fiction novel, Snow Crash. In the book he describes a virtual world that resembles a complete analogy of reality. His metaverse is a vast city street that spans a planet. On this street players can do anything that they can also perform in reality. Stephenson's metaverse is accessed using a virtual reality headset and is owned by a single corporation. Land within the metaverse is finite and although it’s a virtual world it enforces the same scarcity-based economy we experience in the real world (Stephenson, 1992).

Another definition of a metaverse is a network comprising many interconnected virtual worlds (Dionisio, Burns, & Gilbert, 2013). This could also be called a virtual multiverse. The nature of the connection could vary greatly. In most examples of this type of metaverse, the player remains the most consistent element. The player will usually be able to travel between these worlds while retaining their physical appearance and many of their abilities to interact with the world.

Second Life, an actively developed virtual world, could be considered a proto-metaverse or a ‘MetaWorld’ a term defined by the IEEE Metaverse Standards, although the website listing those standards is no longer active. This can be taken in contrast to a platform like OpenSim, which is described as a ‘MetaGalaxy’ due to the fact it is a set of virtual worlds or MetaWorlds following a standard set by a single authority (IEEE Metaverse Standards, 2011).

Second Life operates on a similar model to what is described in Snow Crash. Linden Research, its primary developer, sells virtual land. Ownership of land is required in order to modify the landscape and build structures. Players can also create and trade virtual objects, potentially making a profit in the process. They do this using Linden Dollars, a virtual currency that can be purchased from Linden Labs at a market exchange rate (Castronova, 2001).

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Figure 4 shows a view of Second Life in 2021. In the centre is the player avatar looking out over a communal plaza. The conversation window open on the right is a multiplayer chat.


Second Life’s structure follows the traditional approach taken by proto-metaverse platforms. It has a single game engine with fixed standards. Worlds made on this platform must be constructed within the bounds of this engine’s standards, which enforces some consistency between them. Figure 4 shows a view of Second Life; while the fidelity and complexity of the world has advanced, its interface and design does not differ greatly from the early 3D world shown in figure 2.

Tim Sweeney, the CEO of Epic Games, recently raised one billion US dollars to fund their vision of a metaverse. In an interview for GamesBeat, Sweeney describes a metaverse as “a place where you can actually drive the cars around and feel the experience of it. You can use a Corvette in the game.” (Takahashi, 2021) Although he does not clarify what driving a Corvette has to do with connected virtual worlds, or how a metaverse would change the experience of driving a car in a virtual world, it’s possible he is referring to a metaverse as an advanced virtual reality interface. This highlights a potential confusion between a metaverse and the means of accessing a metaverse. While Snow Crash described a metaverse that was accessed via a virtual reality headset, the metaverse itself existed separately from its means of access.

We are left with the question, how does a metaverse differ from a virtual world? A loose analogy may be the difference between a city and a town. There is a myth that traditionally a city has a cathedral and a town does not; however, most modern city definitions are based on population count (Rosenberg, 2020). This is a difference between provision of services and size. Is a virtual world with many players but no services a metaverse? Is a virtual world with many services but few players a metaverse? As mentioned in the virtual worlds section, the answer may come from the diversity of both. A metaverse should offer many different services or purposes, and a wide range of communities.

There may be some confusion between a combination of many worlds defining a metaverse versus many purposes defining a metaverse. If each world provides a different purpose, then, by proxy, the collection of worlds definition is the same as the Snow Crash definition. The key difference is that defining a metaverse as a set of connected worlds is a technical perspective, while a metaverse defined by many services is an experiential perspective.

With this in mind, a purpose is a world, a perspective, a service, and a community all in one. I will conclude this section by stipulating that a metaverse should at least meet the following requirements:

·       There must be multiple purposes.

·       Players must be able to create their own purposes.

·       Some or all content must be accessible for all purposes.

·       There must be multiple overlapping standards for purposes to follow.


Bartle, R. A. (2004). Designing virtual worlds. New Riders.

Bartle, R. A. (2009). From MUDs to MMORPGs: The history of virtual worlds. In International handbook of internet research (pp. 23–39). Springer.

Bartle, R. A. (2020). CE317/CE817 Lecture 1. Retrieved from

Blizzard. (2020). Blizzard End User License Agreement. Retrieved from

Castronova, E. (2001). Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account Of Market And Society On The Cyberian Frontier. CESifo.

Chambers. (1999). 21st Century Dictionary. Chambers.

Dionisio, J. D. N., Burns, W. G., & Gilbert, R. (2013). 3D virtual worlds and the metaverse: Current status and future possibilities. ACM Computing Surveys.

IEEE Metaverse Standards. (2011). IEEE Metaverse Standards. Retrieved from

Rosenberg, M. (2020). The Difference Between a City and a Town. ThoughtCo. Retrieved from

Shah, A. (2021). Defining the Metaverse. Retrieved from Duality Robotics website:

Stephenson, N. (1992). Snow Crash. Retrieved from

Takahashi, D. (2021). Epic Games raises $1B for long-term metaverse plans, with $200M from Sony. VentureBeat. Retrieved from


[1] TinyTIM, website and history,

[2] For further reading see Sony SAPARi,

[3] Voxel Wikipedia entry,