Synthetic Worlds

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Book. Edward Castronova. Synthetic Worlds.


From Pat Kane [1]:

"Castronova is notable for being an economist that's as interested in spirituality and transcendance as he is in the functioning of markets. Also contained in the book are notes to what he calls "an economy of fun" - ie, what are the economic rules of interaction that keep online players participating in a game-world - which I'm going to ponder heavily, as an enrichment of my own rather sketchy notions towards a players' economy.

Castronova, a political economist from Indiana University, tells the story of a game called Ultima Online, whose designers decided to relax some of their controls on the behaviour of players. Instead of just being allowed to engage monsters in combat, they were allowed to engage each other. Organised groups of players then "devoted themselves to the study of how to track down and kill innocents, just for kicks".

Life in Ultima Online became nasty, brutish and short: exactly the conditions that Hobbes used "to describe life in the absence of government", and evidence that "anarchy reigns in synthetic worlds". The controls were returned, and the game was saved from auto-genocide.

The titles of the most successful games - Lineage, World of Warcraft, Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot - reveal a lot about these "massively multiplayer online role-playing games". Their avid users, mostly adult males in Asia and America, clearly want to escape from real life into a permanent Middle-Earth, where they willingly allow their violent marauding and adventuring to be limited by the "deep magic" of the game designers' distant authority.

Castronova quotes JRR Tolkien's 1939 essay on fairy stories, where the magus asks, "why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?" The prison - a culture, says Castronova, "that leaves people feeling isolated, aimless and bored" - has a new exit strategy, via mouse and screen.

The fact that none of these synthetic worlds has anything like a democratic or consultative process for their millions of users is surely a more worrying phenomenon than Castronova makes out. For these digital escapees, "home" is a stygian, mist-wreathed throwback, where modernity never happened, and seemingly isn't welcome.

Yet these games are not entirely a medieval refuge from modern living. Castronova became fascinated by the economic activity within these worlds: the most skilled players get rewarded with gold, and can then purchase goods or trade with others.

Things got really fascinating when players started to go to external markets like eBay, and sell earned game-gold for real dollars to other players, who could use it to boost their power without spending tedious hours felling orcs. The New York Times last week reported the inevitable: US shysters are setting up cyber-cafes full of "gold farmers" in China, whose job is to rack up reward points to sell to wealthy (and lazy) game players.

Online games, at least in the commercial sector, are clearly no place for cyber-idealists. Castronova makes a strong case that universities are the only institutions capable of creating digital environments that aren't as stiflingly feudalistic as the market leaders. He imagines a future where students will use simulations to test out new ideas about societies, cultures and economies. However, he tediously genuflects, as so many American game experts do, to the imperatives of the US military, advocating online games as a means of anticipating "people of bad intent". (

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