A new show explores the vast history of online worlds

With an eye to the future, Between Worlds at the Photographers’ Gallery in London asks what the relics of our digital past tell us about where we are headed

Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the iconic online multimedia platform Second Life, the exhibition was prompted by a desire to explore the last 30 years of “virtual world history and virtual world-building”, and arrives at a time when interest in our digital future has never been greater (or more hyped).

With the rise of the metaverse and Web3 technologies, public debate on how we should engage with these virtual spaces and how they should operate is rampant and widespread.

Between Worlds takes a somewhat academic approach to the subject, and suggests that answering questions about what our virtual futures may contain requires us to look to the past for understanding about how we got to where we are today, and what lessons we have learnt from these experiences.

Top: Between Worlds, edited from a photo taken at the Pilgrim’s Dawn, Second Life; Above: Second Life (still), 2023. Both images courtesy of the Photographers’ Gallery
Second Life (still), courtesy of Preserving Worlds

The exhibition follows new research by the Photographers’ Gallery into “the structural and socio-political issues around online worlds”, and offers insights via the presentation of the social exchanges, digital artefacts and politics that make up this vast and complex history.

Included in the exhibition are popular MMO (massively multiplayer online games) of the past, digital initiatives such as Global Gateway – an EU-funded metaverse designed to “engage young people in topics such as climate, connectivity, and health” – and videos of ‘end of the world’ parties, taken from gatherings of users to mark the end of a virtual world or game, shortly before its servers are turned off forever.

World Imagining Game (production stills). Courtesy he Photographers’ Gallery with Benjamin Hall and Frances Lingard
World Imagining Game

There are also screenshots from viral ‘meeting my internet best friend’ videos, which highlight how relationships built in virtual spaces can occasionally transcend them, and clips from Preserving Worlds, a 2021 TV docuseries by Derek Murphy and Mitchell Zemil that explores the importance of historic online spaces such as WorldsChat, Myst Online, and ActiveWorlds.

Visitors can also play World Imagining Game, a newly-commissioned video game created by Glasgow-based developers Benjamin Hall and Frances Lingard specifically for this exhibition. In the game, players are invited “to create new and alternative virtual worlds while exploring the power dynamics, aesthetic possibilities, and legacies at play”.

Between Worlds is on show at the Photographers’ Gallery until September 23; thephotographersgallery.org.uk