The eleven most influential online worlds of all time

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Since the dawn of the digital computer, sci-fi authors have dreamed of a world that exists solely inside a machine. As technology progressed, it became possible not only to re-create our analogue world in computer software, but to include many people, far flung but connected through a network, in that shared experience. These are online worlds, worlds in which representations of distant human players inhabit virtual space together, whether in 3D, 2D or text form.

Here’s a look at 11 of the most influential online virtual worlds ever created, ordered from least influential to most. These worlds aren't necessarily the first, or the best of their kind, but they've had the most influence on the online worlds that followed.

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11. Minecraft alpha multiplayer

Though Minecraft is a relatively recent game, it has already emerged as a highly influential one. In single player mode, you can build shelters and explore the monster-filled countryside, but the jewel of Minecraft is its multiplayer functionality, which debuted with Minecraft Alpha in June 2010.

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10. Habbo Hotel

Habbo Hotel, a cartoonish online world aimed at teenagers, debuted in its native Finland in 2000. Habbo soon expanded into many other countries. Originally authored in Macromedia Shockwave (a browser plugin), Habbo was one of the world's first web-based virtual worlds, and one of the first web worlds to be commercially successful.

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9. Worlds Chat

Worlds Chat was the first 3D online world widely available on the Internet, blazing a trail followed in subsequent years by other 3D worlds such as Activeworlds and Second Life. Worlds lacked obvious game elements. Instead, it focused on being a rich, graphical online chat system with player-selected avatars and interesting environments to explore. This triggered a golden age of multi-user graphical chat worlds like The Palace, WorldsAway and Blaxxun 3D that sprang up in the mid-1990s.

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8. Club Penguin

Habbo Hotel's unexpected commercial success led virtual world developers to target an even younger demographic: pre-teen kids. Club Penguin is one of the most popular of this newer breed of online worlds for children. Kids gather there to chat, trade virtual items and play social games together. Most of these worlds are free at first, but they charge a monthly subscription fee for extended features such as the ability to have your own apartment that you can decorate. Predictably, Club Penguin has been widely criticised for teaching consumerism to young kids, but that hasn't stopped dozens of copycat worlds from springing up. Child entertainment juggernaut Disney acquired Club Penguin in 2007.

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7. Webkinz World

Around the same time that Club Penguin appeared on the scene, another highly influential online world for children debuted. With Webkinz World, Canadian toy company Ganz linked the world of physical toys to an online world that children could use. Even today, Ganz sells a line of plush animal dolls called Webkinz, each of which comes with a special code that the purchaser can enter into the Webkinz website. Once a child enters a toyundefineds code, a representation of the plush animal springs to life online, and the player can pilot the creature through a virtual environment, play games and even chat with other Webkinz users.

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6. World of Warcraft

In the past seven years, World of Warcraft has amassed an astounding 11 million paid user accounts worldwide. The mythos, graphics, and quest system brought those players to the 3D online roleplaying game, but the rich virtual world kept them coming back to venture on combat-rich quests with friends, collect rare equipment and build the stats of their online alter egos. As history's most successful pay-to-play massively multiplayer online game, WoW has inspired a seemingly endless stream of imitators, competitors and pretenders to the throne. In that way, WoW is responsible for the creation of more online worlds than most of the worlds in this list.

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5. ActiveWorlds

Shortly after the debut of Worlds Chat, Worlds Inc also launched ActiveWorlds, the first mainstream 3D online world that allowed users to build structures within the game. Whereas Worlds Chat specialised in graphical chat, ActiveWorlds focused on being a simulation of reality in which you could build your own home and environment. Its in-world economy, physics and land management system blazed a trail for later worlds like There and Second Life, which owe a huge debt to this pioneering world. ActiveWorlds, though not as popular as it once was, is still around today.

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4. Ultima Online

As one of the first massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPG), Ultima Online launched an industry. The game first caught the public's attention in its beta-testing phases when a clever player named "Rainz" managed to kill the supposedly invincible sovereign Lord British. In Ultima Online, players were free to pursue almost any path, from a combat-based lifestyle to a life as a thief to one as a baker. Over time, UO also provided an influential and important platform for sociological studies of virtual world behaviour. Most importantly, the economic success of UO spawned MMO imitators: EverQuest, Lineage, Star Wars Galaxies and everything else that followed.

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3. Second Life

As a virtual world, Second Life picked up where ActiveWorlds left off. It started with a fully realised 3D online world and added a new twist: a robust free market economy based on the sale of player-made virtual goods (like clothes, house decorations and cars) and services (like house design). Unlike other worlds, Second Life's currency had weight: users could exchange US dollars for Linden dollars or vice versa. Soon a virtual real estate boom was in full swing, making a few SL residents rich in the real world sense. Second Life's popularity has declined since that peak around 2007, but it persists as one of the most successful and influential virtual worlds ever created.

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2. Habitat

Lucasfilm's Habitat was the world's first large scale attempt at an online community with a graphical interface. The 2D virtual world was available on a beta test basis from 1986 to 1988 through Quantum Link, a dial-up online service for Commodore 64 users. In 1988, a stripped down version of Habitat, Club Caribe, took its place.

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1. MUD

In 1978, Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle created the worldundefineds first firmly documented multi-user online environment, MUD, at the University of Essex. The first version of MUD (which stood for "Multi-User Dungeon") ran on a DEC PDP-10 mainframe and users connected through terminals hooked to the local university network. Before long the network linked up to ARPAnet and with Bartle's encouragement, various MUD-like games sprang up around the world.




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