18 Virtual Worlds

Carrie Lewis Miller

Learning Objectives

  • Define the term virtual worlds
  • Identify examples of virtual world platforms
  • Assess the digital safety concerns of implementing learning environments in virtual worlds

The discussion of virtual worlds as a part of Game-Based Learning tends to blur the line between virtual reality and video games.  For example, Minecraft and World of Warcraft are both games but can also fall into the category of virtual worlds.

“A virtual world is a computer-based online community environment that is designed and shared by individuals so that they can interact in a custom-built, simulated world. Users interact with each other in this simulated world using text-based, two-dimensional or three-dimensional graphical models called avatars. Avatars are graphically rendered using computer graphics imaging (CGI) or any other rendering technology. Individuals control their avatars using input devices like the keyboard, mouse and other specially designed command and simulation gadgets. Today’s virtual worlds are purpose-built for entertainment, social, educational, training and various other purposes. 

All virtual worlds possess the qualities of persistence and interactivity. This enables the users to explore the inherent benefits of socialization and allows them to study human nature and users’ abilities.

A virtual world may also be called a digital world.” (“Virtual Worlds,” 2017, para. 1-3)

Virtual worlds are generally designed to closely simulate real-life as much as possible.  Once again, we see this blurry overlap – are virtual worlds simulations?  Or are they games?  Or are they a separate category altogether?  The answer is all three.  It largely depends on how the software is being employed that places it into a category.  The Sims can be played for entertainment which makes it a game that is also a virtual world.  Using it as a learning tool to discuss social interactions or run family or social experiments may move it into the realm of simulation.

Essentially, virtual worlds are a technology tool that can be used as entertainment or education. When Virtual Worlds are used for education, the results tend to be favorable. In a study of chemistry students using either a virtual lab inside Second Life or students using an in-person lab, those using the Second Life lab performed as well as the students using the in-person lab.  Students indicated that they felt less distracted doing the experiment in Second Life and that certain components of the experiments were easier to do inside the virtual world (Winkelmann et al., 2020).

Other studies have found that the anonymity of learning in a virtual world and the use of avatars, actually encourages some students to participate. Particularly in the area of English as a Second Language, Chen and Kent (2020) found that students who participated in a virtual course held in Second Life provided more opportunities for the students to communicate spontaneously while engaged in real-world speaking tasks.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Explore some of the various virtual world platforms. Which one(s) are you most interested in exploring, if any? What might appeal to learners about virtual worlds?
  2. What specific safety concerns must we consider when designing educational interactions in virtual worlds?


Chen, J. C., & Kent, S. (2020). Task engagement, learner motivation and avatar identities of struggling English language learners in the 3D virtual world. System88, 102168.

Techopedia (2017). Virtual World. Retrieved from: https://www.techopedia.com/definition/25604/virtual-world

Winkelmann, K., Keeney-Kennicutt, W., Fowler, D., Lazo Macik, M., Perez Guarda, P., & Joan Ahlborn, C. (2020). Learning gains and attitudes of students performing chemistry experiments in an immersive virtual world. Interactive Learning Environments28(5), 620-634.

Suggested additional resources

  • Fowler, C. (2015). Virtual reality and learning: Where is the pedagogy?: Learning activities in 3-D virtual worlds. British Journal of Educational Technology, 46(2), 412-422. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.12135
  • Lackey, S. J., Salcedo, J. N., Szalma, J. L., & Hancock, P. A. (2016). The stress and workload of virtual reality training: The effects of presence, immersion and flow. Ergonomics, 59(8), 1060-1072. https://doi.org/10.1080/00140139.2015.1122234
  • Nussli, N. C., & Oh, K. (2015). A systematic, inquiry-based 7-step virtual worlds teacher training. E-Learning and Digital Media, 12(5-6), 502-529. https://doi.org/10.1177/2042753016672900



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Game Based and Adaptive Learning Strategies Copyright © 2021 by Carrie Lewis Miller is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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