-[GameSetWatch columnist and WorldsInMotion.biz editor Leigh Alexander just wrote this editorial about the online world/game coming-together which is, yes, also a call for attendees to our inaugural Worlds In Motion Summit at GDC. But it's interesting, and hey, it's our blog, so please to read, eh?]

Watching the historically distinct spheres of online social worlds and traditional video games in 2007 was a bit like watching wild creatures on a nature show -- the two circled each other with distinct wariness, and then increasing curiosity. 2008 is set to be the year the two play together like frolicking puppies, and it'll begin to get tougher and tougher to make out which tail or ear belongs to which animal.

Certainly, the virtual worlds space distinguished itself with some unique trends that set it apart from gaming. For better or for worse, Second Life began as the industry's poster child -- a navigable, interactive 3D space that was clearly not a game, and as the largest target, it suffered much suspicion, if not outright derision, from traditional gaming spheres. "What is there to do there?" People wondered. Follow that up with a boom of ad-supported -- if not outright advertising-themed -- worlds targeted at the traditionally fad-obsessed teen and 'tween market, add a few great big dollar sign headlines, and the success of some stuffy-sounding business products, and the game world was prepared to be highly skeptical.

After all, game fans had enjoyed a historically isolated universe. The only time people bothered them was to periodically blame gaming for childhood obesity, lapses in literacy or heinous crimes, and gamers closed ranks and kept to themselves, pleased with their highly complex and misunderstood medium. But then, a few major things changed.

The explosive success of Blizzard's World of Warcraft showed that online gaming could go mainstream in a big way. Nintendo's Wii console sold like hotcakes, as a contented fringe audience began -- at first grudgingly, then inclusively -- making room for mothers, grandparents and the once-dreaded "casual gamer."

As it turned out, the casual gamer proved to be as loyal and voracious a demographic as the core console market, and this tidal wave of "gaming for everyone" helped pave the way for a widespread redefinition of who plays with entertainment technology and why. In fact, D3P's Puzzle Quest -- a portable title based squarely on the traditional casual "match three" puzzle mechanic -- made 2007's "best-of" list for many gamers who turned up their noses at casual play just a short time ago.

Taking advantage of an increasingly malleable audience and hoping to capture some of the feverish loyalty and investment WoW users felt for their world, game developers of all stripes took a much-needed closer look at what people find most gratifying about play.

No surprise that, given the "group gaming" mentality spearheaded by Wii and the online play offered by Sony's Playstation Network and Microsoft's Xbox Live, alongside massive user numbers garnered by social media sites like MySpace and Facebook, the key message was that people like to use play as a way to connect and socialize with one another. Kids aren't the only ones who like to show off fashion duds or fame points in places like Habbo Hotel and vSide, but an all-ages audience can be proud of their Xbox Live gamercards, leaderboard standings or special gift badges on Facebook.

Virtual goods that demonstrate rank, popularity, social relationships or personality proved to have real value for both gamers and users of social media. In games, these objects convey a competitive advantage -- but the prestige that goes along with it is equally important. And whether or not virtual goods are involved, personalization is key. We now live in an era where a core-market console title like Mass Effect now has a point of commonality with Habbo Hotel -- a fully customizable, self-determined lead character.

Gamers have begun to demand the same freedom that users of online worlds enjoy to personalize their experience, contribute the fruit of their own imagination. Turbine discovered emerging player behavior in their Lord of the Rings Online MMO that strongly indicates that users will create their own fun if given the right tools -- more than that, they want to -- and Raph Koster's Areae aims to take that concept to unprecedented levels by allowing users to create their own worlds entirely with Metaplace.

When Worlds in Motion began covering the rapidly-emerging virtual worlds space, we attempted to draw a clear line between developments in that sphere and news that must be relegated strictly to the gaming world. That line is no longer so easy to draw. Issues of microtransactions, alternate revenue streams and business models, in-game advertising, user-generated content, player behavior and social media now belong equally to games, virtual worlds and social networks, and now that traditional boundaries have become irrelevant, it's an exciting time for the evolution of entertainment.

The inaugural Worlds in Motion Summit was established to unite industry leaders from these previously disparate fields to at last share points of view, experience, observations and expertise. We aim to look past the virtual worlds hype and dispel the myths to mine the truly essential, inspiring and often surprising trends, facts and lessons from these rapidly-growing media forms, and find the clear paths forward for education, business and the evolution of the way we play.

Speakers for the event include Club Penguin CEO Lane Merrifield, Disney Online senior vice president of premium content Steve Parkis, Nick.com senior vice president Jason Root, Neopets senior vice president Kyra Reppen, Dr. Eyj├│lfur Gu├░mundsson, Ph.D, in-world economist for EVE Online, Gaia Online CEO Craig Sherman, John Bates, director of business development for Entropia Universe, Multiverse's Corey Bridges and Rafhael Cedeno, MindCandy's Michael Smith, Turbine's Jeffrey Steefel, Areae's Raph Koster, Relic Labs studio head Adrian Crook, Nexon's Min Kim, Millions of Us' Reuben Steiger, among others.

The deadline for early registration for the Summit is January 16th, so register today! The Summit is available to attend via several different Game Developers Conference 2008 passes, and more information on the event plus the speakers announced so far is available on the Worlds In Motion Summit webpage.