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Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games
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For people already playing these games the first 50 or so pages are boring. But he obviously covers this material so that even lay people can quickly be brought up to speed on his other topics. He sometimes slips back into these rudimentary explanations but I believe it is an effort to help the larger market.
He covers a wide variety of topics in this book. Discussions of property rights within VR worlds, violence within VR worlds, and the actual value of VR money and items. The variety of topics leads to a slight rambling feel in the book and some thiness on the arguements. However, I thought everything was adequately covered. I was looking for something of a "truer" economic discussion of synthetic worlds but he teased me. He does write an explanation, and defense, of synthetic economies and problems within them. For me though, I thought this was going to be all 300 or so pages when it was just about 75.
If there were more books like this published I would have given him 3 stars but since this is going to be the start in a long, long, long series of books I will give him 4 for breaking ground. He probably should have milked the material for two books. :)
If you have play these games and have and a tidbit of economics in you then buy the book and enjoy. I am going to read his papers now in an effort to get that fix.
(A Synthetic World is a gaming landscape that is always running in which gamers can interact with each other and play within a virtual reality that has loose rules and the characters can nearly do whatever they want)
Dr. Castranova's book "Synthetic Worlds" explores the new technology of role playing games set within these virtual realities and what they mean to the players and to society at large. It all started in the later 90's when the video game classic Ultima was created as "Ultima Online". From then on there have been more and increasingly complex virtual world games including "Everquest" and "World of Warcraft". Gamers who want to have good characters in these games can play for many hours and build their warriors, mages etc into powerful players OR they can buy them on Ebay. This is one way in which the game world has real world implications. But on a deeper note it seems that gamers many of whom put in many hours a day within these synthetic worlds, often seem to care more for their synthetic life than their actual one. There are several problems with this and while the majority of people can cope with the separation of synthetic and actual worlds there are a few that cannot. Either way these synthetic worlds have become a great new form of escapism that lets the user do things they could never do in a very real feeling way.
Castranova further looks into the video game industry and poses the question of what happens when the gaming company cannot make money on the game any longer and wishes to "pull the plug" on the synthetic world. Obviously people would be annoyed and he suggests that possibly the game could be turned over to the players but this too poses difficulties.
I found this book to be a very interesting read and as we spend more time in front of computer interfaces each day I think we can all learn something about they way we interact with technology from reading this book. Certainly reading about the gamers themselves is very enlightening and anyone interested in the way people escape will also find this an interesting read. I think anyone interested in sociology or technology will find this book worthwhile.
Around the middle of the book, he switches from describing a typical world for the benefit of those who doubt the importance of virtual worlds to describing how to design good worlds. This is where I started to find the book interesting and the questions thought-provoking, but the answers often unconvincing.
His most important discussion is about the near-anarchy that prevails in most virtual societies. He attributes this partly to the "Customer Service State" of for-profit world builders who are too cheap to pay for as much government as he assumes citizens want. But he seems to believe this is too inevitable to be worth much analysis. His more interesting question is why don't the world's citizens organize a government of their own? His answer is that citizens don't have enough power over each other to enforce laws they might create. But he doesn't convince me this is true (are boycotts useless? is repeatedly killing an outlaw not punishment?), nor does he explain why the designer face little pressure to change the design of the world to make it easier to enforce laws (what would happen if the world were designed to enable one person to effectively banish a person she doesn't like from her view of the world?). I suspect part of the answer is that there's less demand for government than he expects. I see some hints that his desire for government in cyberspace is a simple reflection of his desire for government in the real world. Yet I'd expect the analysis of whether government is desirable to be nontrivially affected by such differences as whether poverty and death cause much harm.
He claims "A fun economy should have property, theft, and jail too", but only gives a few cryptic hints about what theft and jail add to an economy.
He claims "there should be no goods which never depreciate", and partly justifies that by pointing to some benefits of a continuing need to produce new goods, but leaves me wondering why the rule should be universal or even close to universal.
He hints at the desirability of creating p2p virtual societies so that control over them can be decentralized instead of being determined by a corporate owner, but I'm disappointed that he fails to analyze whether this is practical.
One insight I liked was this description of how to deal with the desire for everyone to have high status: "How do you make a world in which everyone is in the top 10 percent? The answer: AI."
He has a disturbing idea about the military uses of virtual worlds - an aggressor need not be hampered by unfamiliarity with the land he's invading if he has unlimited ability to practice the invasion in simulation.
He has some ideas about how virtual worlds might help deal with threats such as <a href="[...]">grey goo</a>, but doesn't develop them as well as I would like. His ideas on using virtual worlds to make AIs more friendly appear to anthropomorphise AI in a rather naive and dangerous manner.