10 Essential Reads on Virtual Worlds and Game Design for Social VR

10 Essential Reads on Virtual Worlds and Game Design for Social VR

If you’re looking to learn about virtual or augmented reality (AR/VR) design, a good place to start is learning about game design, its history, and the social science involved in designing virtual worlds. Today’s technology hasn’t yet brought us all the affordances of real life into the virtual world, and video games have 40 years of design practice exploring how to best design interactions that directly translate to virtual reality experiences, whether they are games or not.

I was given the opportunity to read many books this year thanks to a hefty train commute. Between asking for recommendations on Twitter and scrounging books from the office, I compiled this list (in no specific order) of 10 books that are essential reads for anyone interested in the design of virtual worlds, virtual reality experiences, or social game environments:

1. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

A decent read on gamification and alternate reality games. There is some filler, largely due to the age of the book (explanations on popular applications like Four Square), but skipping through those will allow you to learn more about social interactions in alternate reality games, either based on mobile, PC, or even using the real world as a canvas. I felt like I got a lot of inspiration and general awareness on the design and development of alternate reality games from reading this book.

2. Console Wars

A retelling of the history between Sega and Nintendo. This is not a Game Design book, but it’s listed here because it’s an example of how much marketing design impacts a product, and in this case, games. People fell in love with Sonic and the marketing campaign because it made them feel cool, edgy, and hip. The brand and how your experience makes people feel is just as, or even more so, important as the content in the experience. You may be struggling to figure out what content to add to the world or experience, but none of that will matter if your “Why would I want to use this?” message is not making an impact on your audience. Also, figure out who your audience is. “Everyone” is not acceptable. 

3. Blood, Sweat, and Pixels: The Triumphant, Turbulent Stories Behind How Video Games Are Made

A series of chapters detailing the development journey of multiple games and game studios. I wish there were more books like this that show the pains the developers went through, the successes, and the iterations the game endured. I related most to the Destiny chapter, where Bungie was trying to develop a new game that wasn’t just a copy of Call of Duty (where the developers had come from), but they were stuck in their old ways. I related this to some of the challenges I faced working at High Fidelity, where many of the users (and some developers) had come from Second Life and conventions had trickled over from that platform, without assessing whether or not it was the best way to go about the design, like the word “rez.”

4. Second Life: The Official Guide

I found this one on a bookshelf at work! If you’re interested in learning more about Second Life, you might just take a look at New World Notes. This book is full of anecdotes on users from Second Life at the height of its popularity. I was amused to find some familiar aliases in there. It retells some information as to the current state of SL’s design and architecture with some technical blurbs. I hope to one day see a book written by Philip Rosedale on the design iterations Linden Lab went through for SL’s many features and what impacts they made on the community. I recall a story Philip told me about the adjustment of last names, how this change impacted user’s social status, and what Linden Lab did to mitigate that situation.

5. Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation

A MUST. Want to create really immersive, fun, highly effective content? This books details how “game feel” is important to usabilty and impacts player delight by detailing how haptics, audio, and animations affords players immediate feedback mapped directly from their controls or interactions. You might also call “game feel” something like “juice” or “effects”.

6. Designing Virtual Worlds

Richard Bartle is heavily cited in virtual worlds due to his creation of the MUD. This textbook details the history of many different MUDs and all the variants of virtual worlds. It outlines mistakes designers have made, the successes, and good practices. This is the book where Bartle talks about player types, what they enjoy and why, and how they react to different incentives in gameplay. Kind of a heavy read, but good for research and flipping through every now and then.

7. Ready Player One

This one is the only fiction work on here, but is a good novel to draw design inspiration from. Shows a dystopia with a huge presence of a virtual world using HMDs. Good for inspiration and historical references. Please read the book before watching the movie, it oversimplified the gameplay and content present in the book, with a too-fast-paced timeline.

8. The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses

The book every game designer owns, and only some have read. Go read it!

9. My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World

An extremely interesting book about cyber rape in a virtual world. In a text-based application called LambdaMOO, an event happens that causes people to think about the communities of virtual worlds in a different light, and the repercussions of virtual actions. It details some of the iterations that were made on the platform to assist the community. A passage I read reminded me of a design review I was in at High Fidelity:

You might want to argue that what those victims didn’t directly experience didn’t hurt them, but consider how that wisdom would sound to a woman who’d been, say, fondled by strangers while passed out drunk in the middle of a party, and you have a rough idea how it might go over with a crowd of hard-core MOOers.

The conversation we were having was about a full screen user interface. I was (and am) very against having a user interface completely obscure the virtual world, especially in VR. If a user can’t see their avatar but it’s still present in the world, people can do obscene things to it without them knowing, but the community still knows. On a related note, I get anxiety every time I play No Man’s Sky and have to pull up the full screen interface when I’m exploring a new planet.

10. The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us―And How They Don’t

Admittedly I haven’t read this but it’s the next book in my backlog. I found out about it by reading reviews of Designing Virtual Worlds. One review criticizes Bartle’s research and commends Nick Yee for the data he provides in his writing. It generally has good reviews on Amazon. Will update once I’ve read it.


Good additions to this list might include game UI design (I’d love to read a book on Destiny’s design process), anecdotal experience design in virtual worlds, and a book focused on Bartle player types.

Are there any other books you think are essential reads for someone interested in social VR?


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