Virtual Worlds Timeline:
the Origins and Evolution of Social Virtual Worlds

A Project of the Contact Consortium,

The HUMlab at Umea University, Sweden.

Other partners to be listed here soon.

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 I 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. 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".

Bruce Damer, Philip Rosedale of Linden Labs, SLCC2006, San Francisco

Avatars, 1997

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 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)!

The Scope and Time Span of the VWTimeline

Example of a SIMILE-based graphical timeline

The primary 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 (possibly based on MIT's SIMILE project) to 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.

Maze War

Lucasfilm's Habitat

Scene from Avatars99

The time span 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 systems likePlato (1970s and 80s), take us through MUDs and MOOs to the late 80s 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 Home and Call for Input and Resources

I was thrilled when in Septeber 2006, Patrik Svensson, director of the HUMlab at Umea University in Sweden, stepped up to the plate to offer the VWTimeline a home base. I am currently talking with Patrik and several other universities about creating an academic partnership for the effort (with an organizational home in the refurbished Contact Consortium). 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. In addition I have started to give a series of lectures about the origins and evolution of social virtual worlds and will be offering these lectures in the USA and Europe in 2007.

Get in contact!

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!

Current Sponsor: Dallas SEO Geek

Thank you for your attention!

Bruce Damer (December 3, 2006)

For some more background please see:

Materials related to the start-up phase of VWTimeline:

Lecture slides and schedule of Bruce Damer's current "Road Show" of talks . This talk is planned for presentation on a European tour in May 2007. If you would like this talk to be presented please contact us.

SIMILE timeline beta for a simple AJAX-based scrollable graphical interface: VWTimeline-beta. See the MIT SIMILE project homepage (for timelines) here.

Newsmaker interview on CNET where the project was announced worldwide at: A brief history of the Virtual World (Nov 9, 2006)

Historical Sites including inital source materials:

the Contact Consortium at:

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 me and my current projects and research for the past decade or so at:

Newly arrived links and resources

Find support & treatment for addiction: Rehab for Drugs and Alcohol.

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).