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A virtual world is a computer-simulated environment[1] which may be populated by many users who can create a personal avatar, and simultaneously and independently explore the virtual world, participate in its activities and communicate with others.[2] These avatars can be textual,[3] graphical representations, or live video avatars with auditory and touch sensations.[4][5] In general, virtual worlds allow for multiple users but single player computer games, such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, can also be considered a type of virtual world.[6]

The user accesses a computer-simulated world which presents perceptual stimuli to the user, who in turn can manipulate elements of the modeled world and thus experience a degree of presence.[7] Such modeled worlds and their rules may draw from reality or fantasy worlds. Example rules are gravity, topography, locomotion, real-time actions, and communication. Communication between users can range from text, graphical icons, visual gesture, sound, and rarely, forms using touch, voice command, and balance senses.

Massively multiplayer online games depict a wide range of worlds, including those based on science fiction, the real world, super heroes, sports, horror, and historical milieus. The most common form of such games are fantasy worlds, whereas those based on the real world are relatively rare.[original research?][8] Most MMORPGs have real-time actions and communication. Players create a character who travels between buildings, towns, and worlds to carry out business or leisure activities. Communication is usually textual, but real-time voice communication is also possible. The form of communication used can substantially affect the experience of players in the game.[9]

Virtual worlds are not limited to games but, depending on the degree of immediacy presented, can encompass computer conferencing and text-based chatrooms. Sometimes, emoticons and emojis are available to show feeling or facial expression. Emoticons often have a keyboard shortcut.[10] Edward Castronova is an economist who has argued that "synthetic worlds" is a better term for these cyberspaces, but this term has not been widely adopted.[citation needed]