A Project of the
Virtual Worlds History SIG
Virtual Worlds Timeline:
We are looking for volunteers and sponsors, please contact us!
Open Letter of introduction by project initiator Bruce Damer
In the summer of 2006 to mark the tenth anniversary of the first Contact Consortium conference Earth to Avatars Allan Lundell and Bruce Damer (that's me!) started to digitize all the video taken of that and other significant events in the virtual worlds community of the mid to late 90s. This archive quickly grew to over 3000 hours of material and gave us a renewed understanding of the importance of those pioneering days and the people who made it all happen. As we spread the word about this effort, an expanding group of people emerged and offered to help us chronicle the birth and evolution of social virtual worlds (worlds in which the main activity is creative or social versus structure game play). This group of people included the pioneering inhabitants of the spaces; employees and developers from the original companies; and the designers and artists who crafted the first generation of avatars and environments. We then started to realize the unique opportunity (and the size of the task) before us: that we had the means, the materials and the people contacts to make possible a comprehensive history of the medium of "social virtual worlds".
As 2006 progressed, the impressive successes of Linden Labs' Second Life was putting avatars back in the news and convinced me that the earlier work needed to have a forum to be recognized. I was invited to the Second Life Community Convention in August 2006 and decided to bring some copies of my original 1997 book "Avatars, Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet" to hand out to a few people who might be interested in what had happened back in "the old days". Much to my amazement I was very warmly received and there were even a number of "old timers" who helped bridge the generations. As I handed out books, everyone asked "are you going to write another edition?". My on the spot answer was "well... yes, but it should be an online wiki or timeline or something to capture and represent everyone's history, including Second Life, because there is too much history to fit in one book and it is being added to too fast to even consider writing a book about it". And hence was born the virtual worlds timeline project (VWTimeline for short)!
Lecture Tours and Writings
From that first presentation at Linden Lab in October 2006 through to today, I have been presenting a series of highly illustrated talks on the "Origins, Evolution and Future of Social Virtual Worlds" at venues ranging from the US, Canada, the UK, Netherlands and elsewhere. My upcoming speaking schedule is here and slides of the first talks are included here. I have also been engaged in writing a series of papers and contributed chapters for publications such as this one for intellect books. I have also been invited to write for (first as a guest and then as a regular contributor) to Terra Nova, the premier academically-oriented virtual worlds blog. You can see a number of my postings here.
A major goal of this project is to create a comprehensive interconnected timeline of artifacts on the history of Social Virtual Worlds (SVWs). The project is focusing primarily on social virtual worlds and not attempting (at this time) to include game play worlds. We define social virtual worlds as being spaces in which the primary activity is communication between users on topics of their own choosing (which may include building and gameplay as secondary activities). The project will first focus on the large scale collection of artifacts, followed by the development of a taxonomic classification, then curation and other analysis, and finally the building of a graphical scrollable timeline. One technology we have been investigating is MIT's SIMILE timelines and the commercial Dipity timelines, in which there is a nice example of a virtual worlds one already. These timelines will permit researchers and the public to have easy access to the archive. All artifacts referencing the medium are being sought including: stories, imagery, chat logs, video of "in-world" and "real life" events, technology, artistry/objects, company materials, academic studies, etc. Backing up the timeline effort, we are looking at building an open contribution technology (a Wiki or other back-end database) that can create a channel for the contribution of artifacts and other resources (such as expert curation) by the community at large. Which technology to use remains an open question.
Time Span and Scope for Collections
The time span of the collections will commence at or before the first 3D networked virtual world which represented users to one another: Maze War (1974) and then continue on through early multi user systems like Plato (1970s and 80s), take us through the rich textual worlds of MUDs and MOOs to the late 80s graphical online experiments with Habitat, and thence to the first wave of Internet-based social virtual worlds in the 90s (including such platforms as Worlds chat, Alphaworld, The Palace, Blaxxun, WorldsAway, and the groundbreaking Avatars cyberconferences) and on up to the present day, documenting the second generation platforms like Second Life.
Project Partners and Call for Input and Resources
I was thrilled when in January 2008 Henrik Bennetsen and Henry Lowood of Stanford University expressed an interest in having the VWTimeline effort collaborate with and contribute to the Preserving Virtual Worlds project, a Library of Congress grant to Stanford and others to develop methodologies for the capturing and representation of the history of virtual worlds and gaming environments. Back at the project start in 2006, Patrik Svensson, director of the HUMlab at Umea University in Sweden, offered to support the project and as he has close ties to Stanford it made sense to combine efforts with this group of institutions and existing projects. The original Contact Consortium, which I co-founded in 1995, was experiencing a rennaissance and a Virtual Worlds History Special Interest Group (SIG) was also formed to provide an organizational home for these efforts. The physical artifacts are being stored at my existing Digibarn Computer Museum. Last but certainly not least, I teamed up with long time Burning Man and computer history pal Marc Weber, who runs the Web History Center, to come up with ideas for representing our artifacts on timelines (as described above). Marc has brought Dipity into the picture and has also worked to bring Stanford, the Computer History Museum and others into this collective effort. We are now working together with Marc, Henry Lowood and others planning a special event at the Computer History Museum in March or April 2009 on the subject of virtual worlds.
Get in Contact, Join Our Group!
If this is of interest to you feel free to reach me at any time through our contact form. If you want to join or contribute in any way to the VWTimeline project please let me know!
Thank you for your attention!
Bruce Damer (initiated December 3, 2006, last updated: October 1, 2008)
For some more background please see:
A new article on the origins, evolution and future of virtual worlds "Meeting in the Ether" by DigitalSpace founder Bruce Damer. This article will be published in a number of upcoming books and journals. A shorter version was featured in a guest piece for columnist Jonathan Grudin in the September 2007 issue of ACM interactions magazine.
Personal Historical Sites including inital source materials:
The Contact Consortium at: www.ccon.org
Avatars and other conferences: Contact Consortium Events
Catalogue of writings at Digitalspace on the virtual worlds medium (1995-present): DigitalSpace Publications
The Avatars (1997) book homepage: Avatar Teleport: Avatars! Exploring and Building Virtual Worlds on the Internet
and more about Bruce Damer and current projects and research for the past decade or so at: www.damer.com
Sites from Other Historians and Practitioners
Terra Nova's Blog on the History of Virtual Worlds (a version of this letter was posted to the Terra Nova blog on December 2, 2006).
Excellent timeline of online worlds by Ralph Koster (covers Plato, MUDs and more).
PlayOn, a blog exploring the social dimensions of virtual worlds (Parc, Inc).
Virtual Worlds Timeline Web Site by Contact Consortium is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at www.vwtimeline.org. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.ccon.org. (cc) 1995- Contact Consortium.