Are graphical digital worlds just text worlds with pretty graphics? After all, people get all excited about sales of virtual items, weddings, stalking, gender bending, and governance, yet all of these behaviors happened in earlier text-based worlds and were probably discussed on MUD-Dev in 1997. Several of these comments touch on this topic in the context that creativity in Second Life is no different than MOOs, so I wanted to put a stake in the ground and then duck and cover:
Physically simulated 3D worlds are fundamentally different from text worlds.
Read on for why
#1 Place matters
Thoughts on place articulated here. More than those arguments, see the next point.
#2 Reading is not doing
Reading a description of a place plugs into very different parts of your brain than seeing it, hearing it, and interacting with it. I've just started reading Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad is Good for You" and one of the early discussion enumerates the differences between reading and playing games.
Sure, text games could have a beautiful description of a sunset that could only be reached after reading a description of racing several competitors to the beach and another description of the long and dangerous climb to the top of a cliff, but claiming it is the same experience as driving a simulated car against other people and then fighting them up the cliff face is just silly.
#3 Avatars matter
Jeremy Bailenson and our own Nick Yee are doing amazing work analyzing the impact of virtual actors on our brains. Avatars are perceived as real and plug into the many parts of our brains that have evolved to handle interpersonal communication. While there are certainly experiments that show that we can personify IRC chat, the range of behaviors and communication possible with avatars far exceeds text.
As an aside, remember that text is a subset of 3D. There was an assertion that 3D couldn't impart smell to an object. Not true, since you can easily have text within a 3D world to cue the many concepts, senses, and factors that don't yet lend themselves to 3D visualization. Similarly, just because the primary communication method is avatars doesn't mean that IM doesn't have its place. Anything that can be done in a text world can be done within a 3D world. The converse is certainly not true.
#4 Simulation matters
Text worlds allow creators to write code and text to generate an interactive text description of skydiving. Simulated worlds allow that and also allow creators to build parachutes and airplanes that enable skydiving in a 3D world. 'Nuff said.
So, pulling this all together, why is creativity in collaborative 3D worlds better than text? First of all, let's all agree that collaboration in text is (technologically) much easier. Everyone on a computer has a keyboard and can type, so creating text is easy. It also has no technological barriers to entry, requires (approximately) no storage space or bandwidth, and it easily crosses the membrane between the real and the virtual.
Despite all of those advantages, creating text collaboratively is hard. New technologies keep getting created to help, but group text creation is hampered by the lack of many cues we take for granted. Precedence, position, who's turn is it, do they agree, what mode is the conversation taking are all obvious in the real world, but very hard to translate into text. But they can be translated into 3D (again, read why place matters).
Moving beyond this, take the piano example I use in many of my talks. I show the screen shot sequence needed to construct a piano in Ultima Online. Sure, it looks like a piano, but it isn't a piano in any useful way. In the same way, even the most evocative description of a piano isn't a piano. But a suitably constructed and simulated piano in a 3D world is a piano in every meaningful way. You can compose a symphony on it, play it to entertain friends, use it to separate space in a room, provide seating at parties, provide a dance platform for Michelle Pfeiffer, etc. In fact, one could easily see the smooth curve from a Korg piano synthesizer all the way to a Cubey Terra's piano in Second Life. That virtual piano, an impressive act of creation on its own, has enabled further acts of creation that exactly mimic the real world. Moreover, those acts can occur in a social setting, so some fine jamming at the digital jazz club can be experienced live by 30 people in the virtual room.
So, the gauntlet has been thrown upon the (digital) ground. I can already sense disagreement and arguments, but -- with luck -- all of our worlds will be better for the discussion.