Virtual worlds have been attracting a huge amount of interest this year, driven by the success of Second Life, World of Warcraft, Habbo Hotel, Club Penguin and a host of others that have hit the headlines. When faced with something so shiny, baffling and new it is reassuring to see that imaginative artists have always intuitively understood both the charms and the dangers of leaving this world for another. Children’s writers in particular have made it their business to dramatise the process of imaginative escape into other worlds, and so children’s literature is full of that liminal moment when a child crosses the threshold and leaves the safe, ordered world they know for some strange new world in which everything is entirely different. This is of course a staple of narrative, not just children’s narratives, but there seems to be something about children’s minds which makes the feeling of leaving real life and entering a magical new world particularly seductive.




So in classic children’s literature such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and in more modern variants such as The Phantom Tollbooth or the Harry Potter novels, children walk through a portal into another place, essentially entering a virtual world of the imagination.










There’s a brilliant section in one of the Narnia novels, The Magician’s Nephew, in which the book’s heroes, a boy and girl called Polly and Digory, find some magic rings which transport them into a place called the wood between the worlds. It’s a magical forest full of trees and little pools of water, and they discover that by jumping in the pools they can enter into hundreds of different worlds. It’s one of these jaunts that takes them to a brand new world which eventually becomes Narnia.




What’s great about this sequence is the moment of horror when the children realise that there is no way to clearly identify which pool leads to which world, or indeed, the one that leads them back to their own. They suddenly realise that they risk getting completely lost in the wood between the worlds, with no way to return home.




I find something extraordinarily resonant about the imagery of this passage, because it seems to me to capture perfectly the problem that we have set ourselves in creating online virtual worlds.




We have created an endlessly proliferating series of virtual spaces to explore. Imagine being a teenage boy today. You can jump into online massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, or play online against people around the world on Xbox Live in a game like Gears of War. You can jump into in the endless whirl of social networking sites like Bebo, or MySpace, or Facebook. You can explore the labyrinthine worlds of music, film, and television online, hunting out specialist websites to pursue your particular taste in obscure cultural niches.




The reality is we don’t have a wood between our worlds. We have the World Wide Web, and it’s this web between the worlds which is our jumping off point for all the new spaces that digital culture is enabling.




Like Polly and Digory, we also risk getting lost in this endless series of virtual worlds, and I think we’re naïve if we underestimate the challenge we are setting ourselves as a culture in finding order and meaning amidst so many different opportunities. The wood between the worlds is beautiful, and quite peaceful: nothing ever happens there, and no one really belongs there. I hope we teach our children the skills they will need to keep jumping between worlds safely. Sadly, and unlike the heroine in Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz books, they can’t just click their heels together to find their way back home.




Michael Parsons will moderate discussions of the economics and the future of virtual worlds at the Virtual Worlds Forum in London next week







Michael Parsons, now editor of CNET.co.uk, was once European correspondent for The Red Herring magazine, and spent five years working in Silicon Valley and worrying about technology. He can be reached at michael.parsons@cnet.co.uk