book review

Synthetic Worlds
The Business and Culture of Online Games.

Edward Castronova (2005)

Edward Castronova made an important contribution to the popular attention of Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs). His 2001 article "Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier" opened the eyes of many uninitiated to the fact how serious gamers are taking MMORPGs and how much money people are making from this. Synthetic Worlds is Castronova's more recent book on the same subject. Again he discusses online games from the perspective of economy and public policy, which is a welcome change from the majority of game-literature usually focusses on technology, design and the art of games.

Reading this book it becomes immediately clear that Castronova aims to reach an audience that extends far beyond the rather small circles of hardcore game players or academics operating in the field of game studies. In the first part he goes through great lengths to explain the phenomenon of online games. This approach is justified, as specialist in this area are vastly outnumbered by the non-specialist. It more or less follows the well-known mantra: games are big; a lot of people take them very seriously; a lot of money is made in the game industry and from the activity of play itself; this is what players do; games provide all manor of opportunities for businesses, education and social study.

The second part of the is where things get far more interesting. In this part Castranova draws on his experience as an economist to describe the economy inside the game, the economy generated outside the game, the internal politics and consequences for human society. I found his chapter on in-game economy the best. Castronova clearly shows how the design of online worlds would have benefited if the developers of such worlds had paid more attention during economy classes. I think that many of the principles for an economy of fun he lays out will be quickly incorporated if these developers take the time to read this book (which I hope they do). Although some of the suggestions, such as progressive taxation, will prove very hard to swallow and it will take a brave publisher to enforce such an unpopular design.

The best food for thought is provided by Castronova's political musings. Starting with his observations that most, if not all, online worlds lack any form of effective government. The publishers are unwilling to play that role (the labour costs would be to high, apparently anarchy is the most efficient way to run a 'customer service state'). The players lack the tools that would allow to effectively run any form of government. That would require them to gain the power to levy taxes, command police or military forces and inflict real punishment. I do not think there will be many publishers that will hand over such powers to certain players light-heartedly. The result is a perpetual state of anarchy in which the players are organised in small clan-like guilds. On the one hand this explains the romantic appeal that these games have over many players: they can easily become part of a society where are forced to work together in small groups. On the other hand these games also clearly illustrates that in such communities aggressive, patronising and sexist behaviour are rife.

You can criticise Castronova for holding a view of MMORPGs that is too romantic. True, his is a concise and detailed account that finally allow us to discuss the potential MMORPGs as social laboratories. However, I do not agree with the assumption that seems to underlie many of Castronova's arguments that these games provide worlds that are essentially just or fair. It might appear that in contemporary MMORPGs ones avatar is born without prejudice and all chances for progression are distributed fairly among the player, but that rules out the differences in the 'player capital'. Having a better understanding of the game and its culture is clearly an advantage for development. Real-world education, language and computer skills and sharing the developers cultural background are all assets which distribution is anything but fair. Worse, when we assume that people are going to take these games more seriously and it will become increasingly common to earn you offline keep with online work, people will take real world ideas of economy and politics into the online worlds, and you better be able to play that game too if you really want to be successful in virtual reality! For that reason I find the neutral vision of the future Castronova sketches out towards the end of the book pretty frightening. In this vision whole groups of economically marginalised people find beauty and bliss online. It adds a whole new dimension to the phrase 'opium for the people'. One I would like to avoid. Perhaps I value the mind and body too much.

But at least books like this will start the necessary discussions that hopefully will craft a better future for online gaming.