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  Google Spreadsheet As Virtual World  
Posted 2008-03-28 by Tony Walsh
Probably someone out there's already mentioned this, but the Google Docs spreadsheet application shares a few features with virtual worlds. I've been using the Google Docs quite a bit lately to work with my distributed team, and the spreadsheet seems to really shine in terms of worldy potential. Here are the features:
  • Controlled multi-user environment: Simultaneous usage by multiple persons. Access is controlled by the person who created the spreadsheet--users can be set as collaborators or just viewers.
  • Presence indicators: All users sharing the spreadsheet are informed of the presence of others in the form of a chat window, temporary notifications, and a mobile avatar (see next point).
  • Real-time text chat: Plus voice if you use Skype.
  • Unique, mobile avatars: Each user is represented by a uniquely-colored outline on an individual spreadsheet cell. A simple avatar, but distinct, and user-controlled. It can move around the spreadsheet.
  • Spatial relationships between users: My avatar can be beside, above, or below yours.
  • User-generated content: All Google gives you is a blank spreadsheet. The users add the content. I don't think it's possible to add proper graphics to a spreadsheet, but it is possible to color a cell and to add colored text to a cell. It is also possible to lock rows and columns, which could provide a visual effect.
  • Dynamic content: It's a spreadsheet, so it's possible to put formulas into cells which rely upon and affect other cells.
  • Inhabitable zones: A spreadsheet can have multiple pages ("sheets"), allowing users in the same spreadsheet to occupy distinct areas--each area is visible only as a tab until clicked, allowing a mild degree of privacy, and a sense of "travel" between sheets.
  • Persistent world: A Google spreadsheet endures over time--it is a "live," changeable, but persistent environment which remembers its state after the users have logged out.
  • Communication with outside world: Users can opt to be notified by email when the spreadsheet has been changed, on a global, sheet, or cellular level. I believe a Google Doc can also be embedded in a web page.
Certainly a Google spreadsheet is not a fabulous virtual world, but I see potential for socializing and play there. The barriers to entry are definitely very low, and content creation is easy, too.

[Update1: added real-time chat to the list. Update2: added spatiality to the list.]
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Comment posted by PaleFire
March 28, 2008 @ 10:57 am
Hey Tony, not sure I am buying this Google speadsheet as virtual worlds thing... Sure, it shares a lot of its characteristics, but so does FaceBook, or any other Web 2.0 app for that matter. For a virtual world to be a virtual world, it needs to define a *place,* don't you think? People need to go there as Richard Bartle notes in Designing Virtual Worlds... I don't see the speadsheet as a place to go to, or I won't logon to the spreadsheet and start editing it when I see my friends there doing the same thing. But I do log on to Second Life when I see my friends there.
Comment posted by HiroPendragon
March 28, 2008 @ 11:00 am
Tony, you missed the obvious:

Imagine when Google Docs allows embedding of Google Earth places, models, SketchUp as a built-in tool, customization of said avatars, and so on and so forth. :)

You're on to something.
Comment posted by davefono
March 28, 2008 @ 11:16 am
Well, you just described any good piece of groupware. The CSCW community has been exploring each of those features for decades; I could send you a handful of papers from the 90s about any point in the list.

It does raise the question of what a virtual world is. I would be interesting in hearing your definition.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 28, 2008 @ 4:36 pm
Thanks for the comments, folks. Nice to get some conversation going on around here again.

@Palefire, one thing Facebook doesn't give you, but Google spreadsheets does is spatiality (which I didn't mention in the original list of features). My spreadsheets avatar can be beside, above, or below yours, for example. I think most virtual worlds should also be able to be described as places--I don't think Google spreadsheets is a "place" by default, but it could certainly be used as one--I intend to try to work it into one of my projects in the future as a place.

@HiroPendragon, definitely I think we both see things headed in that direction. I was more focused on where the software is now--which is incredibly limited, but has potential. I could use it to create a multi-user map of a dungeon, for example, using only the currently-available tools.

@davefono, my definition of a virtual world includes many of the features I already described, plus the idea of 'place' not mentioned in the original article. I didn't mean to suggest any of the features I described were new or novel or previously untapped. My point was that Google spreadsheets could be used as a virtual world. As I said in my comments above, I hope to be able to demonstrate how in a future project.
Comment posted by andyhavens
April 7, 2008 @ 1:26 pm

Weeelll... there's a big difference between saying Google spreadsheets *are* a virtual world, and what you say in your comment, that they "could be used as a virtual world."

The original virtual worlds of RPG games were made of paper; GM maps, stat pages, character pages, hex maps, etc. But just because we made those worlds out of paper, doesn't make paper a virtual world; it makes it a tool.

I've done text RPGs through email and on wikis; they are good tools for playing a game and enabling a virtual world. But they aren't, themselves, virtual worlds. Unless you stretch the definition really far.

What's intriguing about your post, though, is the question: how could any sufficiently communicative media be used to create a virtual world? That kinda rocks my great, huge haid.
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