How you can make a real killing in virtual universes

Synthetic Worlds
June 9, 2006

When successful technologies are first introduced they seem exotic, but they are soon assimilated into everyday life. It is not long before many people feel that they cannot survive without them. Cars, television, plastics and even books are examples of world-changing technologies that are now inextricably embedded in our lives.

Synthetic Worlds is about a new technology that creates worlds one can inhabit. These artificial worlds began with the computerisation of war gaming, which grew out of the realisation that it is preferable to experiment with wars in a synthetic world than in a real one. These new worlds now have about 20 million inhabitants and a gross domestic product per capita that, apparently, exceeds that of India. By 2020, the total number of players is expected to reach 40 million. If nothing else, synthetic worlds are a growing economic force. Certainly they have already made and lost real-world fortunes.

If you have not visited a synthetic world, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Well, consider how involved you can get in a good novel. Now imagine you are in the novel's world and become an active part of the story, not just a passive reader. You are literally caught up in the story.

Then imagine adding markets and an economic system, with currency and wages. You encounter lawyers, economists, anthropologists, psychologists, traders and computer scientists - not real humans but characters who fulfil these roles in the synthetic societies. Think how addictive realistic video games can be, but add thousands of players all simultaneously directing different characters. TV and ordinary computer games already claim great amounts of people's time; synthetic worlds are even more seductive.

Not only do people spend more and more time in synthetic worlds, a few even make an income from their activities in the worlds. There are, for instance, websites that sell designer clothes to wear in synthetic worlds and, of course, the clothes cost real money.

Edward Castronova was a professional academic economist, and his book grew out of his initial amusement with the toy economics of synthetic worlds. He wrote a light-hearted paper about the markets and cultures of these worlds, but the idea gripped him and he wrote another ground-breaking and widely read paper. He died - virtually, that is - several times while writing it, which is perhaps a first for an academic article.

It is likely that the people who increasingly live in synthetic worlds will find the real world more and more tedious. Reality is a lot more inconvenient and cramped than fantasy. Why not change the laws of real worlds to work as efficiently as they do in synthetic worlds? Why not experiment with alternative lifestyles inside these worlds: play at being a man or a woman, doctor or priest before trying these lifestyles out in reality? You can experiment with a policy, try it out, then bring it back refined into this world. You can build a world that embodies any rules you want to have or you can hunt out a congenial one that is already up and running.

Ironically, a lot of synthetic worlds require their players to renounce many real-world rights, such as freedom of speech, the right to trial by peers and the existence of a free press. By renouncing their real-world rights, players allow the organisers of the game to limit their freedom of expression arbitrarily.

This makes some sense for social and political reasons in the real world, but what do we make of the multinational companies taking real things from the real world and placing these products in the synthetic worlds? Already, real police have intervened in cases of theft in synthetic worlds, and arguments have gone to real courts and ended in real fines. The depth of commitment players feel to these worlds creates interesting tensions.

Castronova is breathlessly enthusiastic, but the cynic in me thinks synthetic worlds are nothing really new. Football, for instance, is played by tens of millions of people, and the police have got involved in cases of cheating (and no doubt some players have murdered others).

Castronova makes a point of this comparison. While it may seem incredible that millions of people put their energy into synthetic worlds, the fact is that people have for a long time got very excited about kicking balls around and found the activity quite normal. Football takes up much time and energy, and affects finance and health. Indeed, a lot of people literally live for it. You are free to think the World Cup is a contrived distraction, but be careful about voicing that thought aloud in public.

Similarly, when you opine on synthetic worlds, either say that they are the way of the future or make sure that you are among ignorant friends who have neither lived in one nor read Castronova's book. Synthetic worlds are worth taking seriously.

Harold Thimbleby is professor of computer science, Swansea University.

Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games

Author - Edward Castronova
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 317
Price - £18.50
ISBN - 0 226 09626 2

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