Virtual areas available for places

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Landscape in western Maine

Landscape in the virtual world Second Life (Image copyright 2003, Linden Research, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)

If we are to make places, we need a stretched-out continuum around us that offers regions and directions that invite inhabitation. Places need an expanse, but that expanse could be in virtual space.

Not every virtual area automatically becomes a place. A virtual world could be much larger than the social places established within it, containing unused virtual real estate to be developed into inhabited places. Virtual places are created within virtual spaces, by grammars that make use of features of the virtual space, just as happens in the physical world.

In today's narrow bandwidth world this may not be obvious, but once it is possible to create large virtualities, there will be the virtual equivalent of in-between space, virtual areas which are unclaimed and where no particular pattern of human action takes place. Virtual worlds are created whole, rather than cut from some larger space. They provide an expanse in which actions can be embodied. The virtual places of most computer games offer a limited expanse that has no outsides or non-functional spaces -- though you may be able to see mountains drawn in the distance, you can't quit the game and go off hiking in the hills.

The virtual space and its background features are also our creations. Even so, the creation of the background regions and the creation of the places are not the same, and they can interact. We will have to learn how to use the revisability of virtual locales to solicit the mutual creation of the place, the community, and the norms of action in the place.

For a fictional example, see Neal Stephenson's description of the unused portions of the virtual planet in Snow Crash (Stephenson 1993), and Edward Dimendberg's discussion (Dimendberg 1999) of the "unused" portions of film sets.

Still, a game or a conversation could take place in a virtual world comprised solely of one grammatical place, perhaps -- reminiscences of No Exit -- a room with some furniture and no exterior. Yet even then, the place would be a sensed expanse that allowed appropriate movements: turning towards the mantel, looking away from one's companions, and the like.