Edward Castronova’s Book "Synthetic Worlds"

February 13, 2008 at 10:29 am | Posted in Book Review, Economics, Fun, Gaming, virtual worlds | Leave a comment

In my research into virtual worlds I’ve run across many complimentary references to Edward Castronova, so I was very interested to get his book “Synthetic Worlds, the Business and Culture of Online Games”.  Besides, he teaches at my alma mater Indiana University, so I have to pull for a fellow Hoosier. 

I generally talk about virtual worlds, but Castronova uses the term “synthetic world”.  He defines a synthetic world as “an expansive, world-like, large-group environment made by humans, for humans, and which is maintained, recorded, and rendered by a computer”. 

As an economist, Castronova keenly understands and conveys why items in these worlds have value and why that value is often directly convertible into real currency as proof.  And as an economist, his best insights are into the economics of virtual worlds.  Castronova includes a great chapter on the Economics of Fun.  When I was writing games for Strategic Simulations (SSI) in the 80’s I had an explicit set of characteristics I would apply that described what made a game enjoyable.  Castronova hits them head on: that new objects provide new capabilities, that making choices under scarcity is enjoyable, that the work required to produce rewards is reasonable, and that everyone gets to play “rags to riches” with their characters.  My games pre-dated the internet era, so Castronova adds others that didn’t apply in my experience such as crime, competition, and human-driven economics.

Castornova has also discovered the concept I call “bridging” when he talks about “moments that blurred the distinction between this world and the synthetic world”.  I also feel this is why some people don’t “get” virtual worlds though.  They cannot suspend belief or open themselves up to the virtual reality as having any meaning.

He shows some good insight into general aspects of philosophy, policy, and design of virtual worlds.  In fact, the best quote of the book is this one: “my argument is not that you should care about the ogres and elves running around in cyberspace, but that you should care about the fact that there are ogres and elves, millions of them, running around in cyberspace.” (p. 251)

But clearly, Castronova is not as authoritative when straying far from economics.  For example, when entering the realm of behavioral science, Castronova falls into the common fallacy of saying that people immerse themselves in virtual worlds when they are better than the real world.  The stereotype here is the geek who gets picked on by the bigger boys at school and is ignored by his parents, but escapes to his room to play EverQuest where he is a famous, powerful warrior that commands respect and attention. But those are my words.  As Castronova puts it: “the new worlds being built will grow in popularity if, and only if, they provide a better life experience than the world we were born into.” (p. 70)  That may be true for some people and at some times when they look for escape, just as people do through movies.  But VWs also just count as entertainment, like sports.  Has anyone shown quantitatively or anecdotally that when internet access is provided in impoverished inner cities or war-torn third world countries that people try to escape into virtual worlds?  On the contrary, I think VWs are more popular with people with pretty comfy lives who have their other basic needs met.

But it is in the realm of philosophy (or, more exactly, utopian visioning), that Castronova runs off the road (chapter 12).  His imaginings include potential utopias where a person would be “judged not by the body but on the basis of the mind alone.” and “once everyone gets used to the fact that bodies don’t matter, they may cease to cause discrimination even on Earth.”  (p.258)

Many of his experiences in these games and worlds simply don’t match with mine.  For one, his description of the experience of using a synthetic world is a bit more immersive and extreme than I have experienced and I suspect may overstate its impact on people.  For example, he describes how the user’s identity begins to expand to encompass the user’s avatar, such as when “the avatar’s attributes felt like they were your own personal attributes” or that people frequently leave off “character” or “avatar” when saying things like “my strength is depleted”.  They actually do this when they have multiple avatars, which is pretty common. 

So all in all, I think this is a great book and a must-read for people interested in what virtual worlds are about (mostly from a gaming point of view).  It provides an overview of how the games work followed by a survey of philosophy, game design, politics, psychology, and sociology behind the games, but is clearly most at home with the economics of these worlds.

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