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Guest Post: Real Writers in Virtual Worlds

by Tom Johnson on Oct 30, 2008
categories: technical-writing screencasting

This is a guest post by Ryan Schmid. Ryan has worked as a Senior Technical Writer and Information Developer in St. Louis, Missouri for nine years. He has previously been published in Intercom. Contact: [email protected].

The August 2008 issue of Technical Communication analyzed the growing domain of virtual worlds. I contributed an article about the large amount of written text they contain. This seems surprising, given their reliance on visual and three-dimensional presentation. Even the most "action-oriented" worlds are forced to use text to express concepts such as location names, character names, and the representation of currency. They also use text for chat windows, instructions, signs, and advertisements. One must conclude that written text is an essential method of communication in these environments.

I asked Tom if he had ever explored this topic. He sent me this link.

While I can sympathize with Tom's comments about Second Life, it's just one of many virtual worlds. Many others in development have not yet been released. We shouldn't condemn an entire medium and potential field of work because of one example. Second Life and other worlds like Twinity are designed to promote socialization and commerce. Others, such as Everquest II and World of Warcraft, provide deep gaming experiences. The different categories of virtual worlds are blurring as users create games within Second Life and withdraw real cash from Everquest II and its "Live Gamer" trading system. 

My main goal in writing this guest blog (thanks Tom) was to comment about technical writers and how they might fit into this growing industry. Someone has to create the abundant amount of text used by the virtual world. The user interfaces of these environments (sometimes called "heads up displays" or HUDs) contain a mountain of text dedicated to maneuvering, manipulating an inventory of objects, and using menus and controls. In most virtual worlds, the learning curve for a new user can be as steep as in a complex software package like Photoshop or Flare.

User assistance changes when the environment is three-dimensional. We can't expect users to consume our supporting material in a linear way. The web has forced us to "chunk up" our content and shorten it for users who are less patient. Virtual worlds will probably move writers even further in this direction. A person piloting their avatar is free to look at any given piece of text and walk away in a split second. They have even less incentive to read than they do on a typical website.

That being said, consider these examples of written text used by virtual worlds:

  • Online help
  • In-game commerce, including business writing and advertisements
  • Crafting systems, which use text to describe recopies and skill descriptions
  • Town names, back story, and quest descriptions that use fiction supplied by prose writers
  • Web pages dedicated to news about the virtual world and software updates
  • Magazines and newsletters about the virtual worlds

The number of virtual worlds and users is increasing. Text will remain a vital tool for communication and presentation in these worlds, even if it takes a different form than we are used to. Given our talents, we technical communicators deserve a place in the creation of virtual worlds. We should formally promote our expertise to the people who build them, opening a new area of employment and engagement for our profession.


For articles from the 2008 issue of Technical Communication, visit this link.

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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