Book Review: Synthetic Worlds

by Alphaville Herald on 30/10/05 at 4:16 pm

Author Ted Castronova demonstrates approximate size of words used in his new book (photo by Cory Linden)

Run, don’t walk, to (is that even possible?) and order your copy of Edward Castronova’s Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games today. For anyone interested in deeper thinking about MMOs than just whether the latest patch nerfed your favorite class in your favorite game, it’s a must-read.

While Castronova doesn’t write with the same juicy style that we all know Herald readers prefer (he writes for a more sober blog, after all), he does deliver just as many thought-provoking ideas, and has a lot to say about one of our favorite subjects: where these things we call virtual worlds may be headed in the future.

Castronova’s view of VWs is deeply influenced by his being an economist. But he is just as deeply an MMO player, and he draws freely on his experiences in EverQuest and World of Warcraft to illustrate his arguments.

His perspective is very much his own, though, and not one everyone will agree with. For instance, use of the word “nigger,” in Castronova’s view, should always be a bannable offense. While it’s reprehensible in most cases, I’m not sure all VWs should be so constrained. Such speech is not always a crime in the real world, after all. But then, we’re not talking about the real world, are we?

That’s an interesting question. Castronova is one of the staunchest supporters of the preservation of play spaces as removed from the real world (thus he’s more or less anti-RMT for most VWs). Yet he also posits a scenario in which MMOs can add to people’s real-world income, as already happens in some cases. For that to be possible on any large scale, though, game worlds would have to become work worlds. When it becomes more or less easy for many people to earn a living in the world of swords and spells, won’t that world become as drudge-like as the world of staplers and sales meetings? At that point we’ll start looking elsewhere for our entertainment.

Synthetic Worlds also has a lot to say about the potential of game worlds to improve the lives of their residents. Castronova even envisions a mass exodus to game worlds, should many people start to prefer them to the real one. That’s a pretty dark vision, if you ask me. If the only thing you’re getting out of the real world is food and shelter, there’s something deeply wrong. Game worlds certainly have huge potential to enhance one’s physical existence, but I’d argue that they will never become a substitute in the way that Castronova’s book seems to hold.

At one point, Castronova claims that NPCs with exceptional AI could provide emotional experiences that might be harder to get in the real world. But while they could certainly provide simulated experiences of whatever sort, the mere fact of interacting with an NPC changes the experience. No one mistakes an NPC for a real person. If the NPC has been programmed to admire or respect your formidable deeds, you still know it’s an NPC; that takes away from the weight of that interaction. That’s why fighting another player is a totally different experience from fighting a computer-controlled character. There just isn’t another person on the other end, as good as the simulation may be. And it’s the other people that make these places special.

There’s a lot to debate in this book, but there’s also a lot to think about. Significantly, Castronova tacitly challenges Richard Bartle’s contention that virtual worlds are all about identity. To Castronova, they’re about economics and the joy of acquisition; fun equals getting something you desire. But what if the thing you desire is a gripping narrative that unfolds over months or even years? I’m not sure the economic explanation of virtual worlds can contain that motive. The economic explanation of the real world has enough trouble with it.

The great thing about Synthetic Worlds is that it attempts, for pretty much the first time, to take a comprehensive look at these things we call virtual worlds. Hopefully it will be read by more than just the people who already know and love these places. So buy it now and start reading–especially since you’ll have to finish it by the spring so you can start reading Only A Game.

4 Responses to “Book Review: Synthetic Worlds”

  1. Dean

    Nov 7th, 2005

    An interview with Edward Castronova has just been added to the University of Chicago Press website, in conjunction with the publication of his book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games.

  2. Urizenus

    Nov 7th, 2005

    and let’s not forget the interview he did with the Herald, back before he was a big shot!

  3. Marsellus Wallace

    Nov 7th, 2005

    He was always a big shot I though? Hense, how he ended up on the Herald. Granted he’s bigger now, but he was doing press interviews long before the Herald was ever featured in the press.

    Marsellus Wallace
    Just my 2 cents.. Are you filled with mirth now? haha

  4. Prokofy Neva

    Apr 13th, 2007

    Looking for reviews, I saw this one, but hardly any others. Most “reviews” consist of press releases reprinted on game sites ahead of the release, but not much engagement with the book itself.

    This book is really vital to read. I read through it quickly back in 2005 but skimmed the hard bits. Now I’m reading it in earnest. I violently disagree with a lot of it, but it is the definitive work in the field now, providing the categories for thinking about virtual worlds and the one-line slogans to argue vehemently — until Uri’s book comes out, I guess.

    I think he makes a compelling case for saying that people will in fact all move to virtual worlds and online games, you won’t be able to stop them, and life will get rearranged around it. And he even has a very compelling reason for why people won’t want to go outside and meet with other people anymore — we’ll all be living in compounds due to rampant disease, crime, and the threat of either political terrorism or miscreants replicating diseases.

    That’s why you have to start taking these things seriously now and fighting them now.

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