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Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games

Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games

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by Edward Castronova

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From EverQuest to World of Warcraft, online games have evolved from the exclusive domain of computer geeks into an extraordinarily lucrative staple of the entertainment industry. People of all ages and from all walks of life now spend thousands of hours—and dollars—partaking in this popular new brand of escapism. But the line between fantasy


From EverQuest to World of Warcraft, online games have evolved from the exclusive domain of computer geeks into an extraordinarily lucrative staple of the entertainment industry. People of all ages and from all walks of life now spend thousands of hours—and dollars—partaking in this popular new brand of escapism. But the line between fantasy and reality is starting to blur. Players have created virtual societies with governments and economies of their own whose currencies now trade against the dollar on eBay at rates higher than the yen. And the players who inhabit these synthetic worlds are starting to spend more time online than at their day jobs.

In Synthetic Worlds, Edward Castronova offers the first comprehensive look at the online game industry, exploring its implications for business and culture alike. He starts with the players, giving us a revealing look into the everyday lives of the gamers—outlining what they do in their synthetic worlds and why. He then describes the economies inside these worlds to show how they might dramatically affect real world financial systems, from potential disruptions of markets to new business horizons. Ultimately, he explores the long-term social consequences of online games: If players can inhabit worlds that are more alluring and gratifying than reality, then how can the real world ever compete? Will a day ever come when we spend more time in these synthetic worlds than in our own? Or even more startling, will a day ever come when such questions no longer sound alarmist but instead seem obsolete?

With more than ten million active players worldwide—and with Microsoft and Sony pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into video game development—online games have become too big to ignore. Synthetic Worlds spearheads our efforts to come to terms with this virtual reality and its concrete effects.

“Illuminating. . . . Castronova’s analysis of the economics of fun is intriguing. Virtual-world economies are designed to make the resulting game interesting and enjoyable for their inhabitants. Many games follow a rags-to-riches storyline, for example. But how can all the players end up in the top 10%? Simple: the upwardly mobile human players need only be a subset of the world's population. An underclass of computer-controlled 'bot' citizens, meanwhile, stays poor forever. Mr. Castronova explains all this with clarity, wit, and a merciful lack of academic jargon.”—The Economist
Synthetic Worlds is a surprisingly profound book about the social, political, and economic issues arising from the emergence of vast multiplayer games on the Internet. What Castronova has realized is that these games, where players contribute considerable labor in exchange for things they value, are not merely like real economies, they are real economies, displaying inflation, fraud, Chinese sweatshops, and some surprising in-game innovations.”—Tim Harford, Chronicle of Higher Education

Editorial Reviews

Chronicle of Higher Education
Synthetic Worlds is a surprisingly profound book about the social, political, and economic issues arising from the emergence of vast multiplayer games on the Internet. What Castronova has realized is that these games, where players contribute considerable labor in exchange for things they value, are not merely like real economies, they are real economies, displaying inflation, fraud, Chinese sweatshops, and some surprising in-game innovations.—Tim Harford, Chronicle of Higher Education

— Tim Harford

Chronicle of Higher Education - Tim Harford

Synthetic Worlds is a surprisingly profound book about the social, political, and economic issues arising from the emergence of vast multiplayer games on the Internet. What Castronova has realized is that these games, where players contribute considerable labor in exchange for things they value, are not merely like real economies, they are real economies, displaying inflation, fraud, Chinese sweatshops, and some surprising in-game innovations.”—Tim Harford, Chronicle of Higher Education

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University of Chicago Press
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Read an Excerpt

Synthetic Worlds

By Edward Castronova

University of Chicago Press

ISBN: 0-226-09626-2

Chapter One

Daily Life on a Synthetic Earth

This chapter gives uninitiated readers an overview of how one gets into a synthetic world and what one does after arriving. These places, while being physically different from the Earth, are not socially different from it. All the standard patterns of human social, economic, and psychological functioning seem to translate directly into the new space. A glimpse of daily life in a typical synthetic world should illustrate both how strange and how normal these proskenia are: new stages that host age-old human dramas.

Much of the description is informed by the contemporary state of affairs, in which most synthetic worlds are produced by game companies and served to the customer from a single location. This kind of structure is not necessary to manage a world, of course. The world could also exist on a network of computers, unowned by anyone, and be served to newcomers on an ad hoc basis. From the point of view of the new user, however, the process would look about the same.

Approaching the Synthetic Divide

I suppose the first thing everyone needs to understand is that it is not exactly trivial or easy to get into a synthetic world. A user has to go through a fairly lengthy series of administrative steps before seeing anything fantastic at all. So, let's say you are wandering through the games section at the store, and you see a piece of software that claims to be a multiplayer fantasy role-playing game. The software costs about the same as any other game on the shelf: perhaps $40 or $50. The box says that using the software requires an Internet connection, a fairly high-end computer, and a credit card.

You get the software and install it. You now have a new icon on your computer screen. You click on the icon and a small box appears announcing that a "patch" of the software is overdue; your computer begins to download something from the Internet. Your computer has initiated a conversation as a "client" with some other computer, which we will call the "server." The server has informed your client that its version of the program you are trying to run is out of date; the server is now patching your client, feeding it the necessary changes. The idea is that everyone who connects is working with the same code; the patch server's job is to put all computers that connect in synch as far as the program software goes. Sometimes the patch takes only a few seconds; other times, like when you first purchase the software from the store, the patch can take hours. This is because the people who run the game tend to update the code fairly frequently. By the time you buy the software, the program version on the disk you've bought is probably much older than the current version everyone else is connecting with. You need to get your version up to date, so you've got quite a bit of code to download.

When the patch is finished, you are directed to an account-management screen. There, you might enter a piracy-prevention verification key for your software. You might also have to submit a full slate of personal information: name, address, phone number, email address. You will certainly have to enter an account name and a personal password. While some worlds-rarely-might be accessible for free, in most cases you will have to submit the number of a major credit card and authorize a monthly charge against it. The monthly fee will be at the level of a cheap meal for two, currently $10-$15. There may be some special deal; sometimes the first month is free. When your credit card or other identifying information is validated, your account is successfully created, and you are invited to enter the other world by clicking a button.

You click the button, and ... you still don't see anything fantastic. Instead you are now prompted to enter your user name and your password, in return for which you are treated to one or more contractual agreements. If the world is owned by somebody, you will see an "End User Licensing Agreement," the EULA. Of course, we all see these things on software all the time, but we never read them. This one might be worth reading. It contains the usual language informing you that you rent rather than own the software, and that you shouldn't copy it, and so on. But one new and interesting thing in this EULA, and that you really should pay attention to, is the fact that you will be giving up your right of ownership over anything that you build and leave in the world. Moreover, if something goes wrong with the world, or if the powers that be decide to change some part of the code, and as a result you lose something important to you, you have no right to expect compensation. Indeed, the people in charge (collectively, the "coding authority") use the EULA to assert their right to change the software in any way they please, regardless of what you might think about it. Now, you have to agree to the EULA in order to go to this place at all, so of course you click "Yes, I agree."

Next, you will see a "Code of Conduct" (CoC) or "Terms of Service" (ToS) agreement (sometimes folded into the EULA). You will probably see this regardless of whether the world is owned or open-source, because this document explains that you are entering the world with other people, and that you have to control your behavior or you might be kicked out. If you call people "nigger" or pressure them for kinky sex, and you get caught, you can be banned from the world forever, with no compensation. And of course there's no doubting that you should be banned for these things-just because it is a synthetic world, and not the Earth, does not mean that the notion of moral choice has vanished. On the other hand, in some ToS versions, it states that you can be banned for saying bad things about the coding authority. Once again, you might want to think twice about agreeing to this infringement of your speech rights, but, no matter. You have to agree to get in, so, you click "I Agree."

The screen now fills with some opening sequences-little films about the software's subject, and credits to the developers and the publishers of the game. Then you are invited to choose a world to enter. Typically, although not always, there is more than one version of the world available. The term "shard" can be used here (it comes from one of the earliest synthetic worlds, Ultima Online), the idea being that a "shard" is just one of the many different locales in which the world may be experienced. Each shard is physically like all the others; each one has the same world in it and all the same physical rules. Shards differ, however, in two ways: the group of people who have avatars there, and in the rules. As for rules, the fact that some shards have different game rules is important to know, since these rules may or may not be compatible with your idea of fun. Perhaps on some shards, players can kill other players and steal everything they own, while on other shards this activity is not allowed. As for populations, this is the main reason why shards exist at all. Sharding is a way to manage overcrowding. If a given server cluster can only handle 10,000 users at once, but you have 30,000 subscribers, you will need three server clusters-the shards-to handle everyone. And if any of the shards becomes too crowded with newcomers, the developers have to make a new shard for them to inhabit. Advancing technology will probably solve the crowding problem, but the future will probably still see different shards for each game world, if only to allow for some variety in the rules of play. In any case, you choose a shard that seems uncrowded and whose playing rules best suit your personality, and click a confirming button.

Now the program brings you to a screen filled with check boxes, buttons, dials, and at least one fairly large open space depicting a body of some kind. It might be a humanoid body, or some animal, or a ship, or a machine. This is the person or thing you are going to inhabit in the world; think of it as your vehicle, your car. Clicking on different items will change it from one form to another. It might be male or female, tall or short, fat or thin. You can change skin color, facial hair, and clothing. In addition, there may be lists of attributes or skills-things like speed, strength, even intelligence-that have been given some kind of numerical rating that changes as you click around. Sometimes you have a budget of points to spend on these attributes. Not knowing what this world will be like, it's hard to know what kind of person to be. You wonder, should I increase my strength, or my intelligence, or what?

Ah. Just a moment. Something important just happened. You said my strength, not its strength. Well, actually, you didn't say it, I wrote it. But you didn't stumble over that, did you? It seemed natural enough. You were thinking of this digital body as you, not a representation of you. Interesting. Media researchers have argued that their studies show how quickly and easily people can "become" the objects they manipulate on computers (Reeves and Nass 1996), but perhaps you never felt that sensible people could fall prey to that level of suspended disbelief. But let's move on.

You go on to click and shape and equip yourself-er, this representation of yourself-for as long as you wish to continue playing at Dr. Frankenstein. When you are satisfied with the body you've created, you have to name it. The name will be significant. It's the label everyone will know you by. If there are reputations in this world (and there are), this name is the label to which the record of your actions will be attached, for good or ill. You could use your own name, although you might be prevented from doing so. Sometimes there's only room for a first name, and something like "TheAmazingAndMagnificentEdwardCastronova" might just be too long. Or perhaps you should name yourself something that fits with the theme of the world. Let's say this is a medieval world. Well, what's a famous medieval name? How about "Arthur"? That would be fine. On the other hand, there's nothing in the software preventing a medieval knight from calling himself "SirWhacksAlot" too (I've seen worse), but there may be some social pressure against a person with that name. In some cases, the Code of Conduct will prevent it. In the end, you choose a name that suits your tastes while leaving you open to no more ridicule than you can tolerate. "Arthur" it is. Wonderful.

Being named and fully fleshed-out, you click a confirming button, accepting the body as is. A box pops up: "Character rejected. Reason: Name already taken. Please choose another name." That figures; it's a pretty well-known medieval name. And for the reputation system to work, you can't have two people with the same name, can you? Alright, enter a new name-"Lancelot"-and submit.

Shoot. Rejected, already in use.

You try Galahad. Nope.

Percival. No.

Tristan. No.

Gawaine. No.

Bedivere. No.


Maybe the knights of the Round Table are too popular. Let's see, where else can you go for a medieval-sounding name? There's Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, plenty of medieval fantasy names there.

Gandalf. No.

Frodo. No.

Legolas. No.

Gimli, Bilbo, Strider, Boromir, Faramir, Sauron, Saruman, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is ridiculous. Enough of this fantasy stuff, just use your own name. Edward. No; taken. Joseph. No. Castronova? Hmmm. Do you really want people to know who you are in real life?

You try alternate spellings. Arrthur? No. Arthuur, Arthurr, Aarthur, Aarrthuurr. No.

You try SirWhaacksAlot. It works! (How prescient of you to guess that SirWhacksAlot-just one "a"-would be taken.) Wonderful, now you have a name. But it's a silly name, who wants to be known as SirWhaacksAlot? And, in most worlds, you cannot change the name. Ever. The only thing you can do is delete SirWhaacksAlot and start over with a new body.

You realize that the place you are going to visit, like the Earth itself, has been trammeled by many feet other than your own. There as here, names are important for record-keeping and reputation-building. Each person must have a name, and each name must be unique and unchanging. If millions of people have traversed this terrain, they now occupy millions of names and you cannot have them. You have three options. There are sites on the Internet that will suggest names that fit the kind of world you are entering. Or you can be creative and come up with something new out of root sounds that go together properly: Aralad. Gandolas. Gawur. Bedistan. Gimlamir. If you go this route, it's a good idea to keep up on pop culture slang terms, otherwise you won't know what you might be calling yourself. Your third option is to find a name source that fits the theme but is unlikely to be known to most other users of the world. For a medieval world, look at some hagiographies. Bede is also excellent. Let's see, book 2, chapter 5: At the deaths of Ethelbert and Sabert their successors revive idolatry. "Ethelbert" seems to connote someone bookish. "Sabert" might be read as "Saber-T" by those who think you're showing off as a sword-wielder. You decide that "Sabert" is the better option.

You rebuild the body of your dreams and submit "Sabert" as the name. It is accepted. Your new body is now stored with the server. From now on, whenever you click the icon on your computer screen, the game will patch, prompt you for account name and password, ask you to verify the EULA and ToS again, and then give you the body-selection screen. You can build a new body at that point, or use Sabert, as you wish.

You are now ready to enter the world for the first time.

Crossing Over

You highlight Sabert and click on a button that says "Enter World." There is a pause while your computer loads the elements and tools needed to run the world. Perhaps a little bar indicates that something is "Loading." Usually, the thing that's loading is information indicating the state of the synthetic world this very minute-who exactly is online, where they are, what they are doing, whether it is raining or not, and the status of things like dragons and treasures. While this is happening, the screen goes black or is replaced by a whirling vortex graphic, helping you to imagine that your computer screen is a viewing portal, a camera, whose point of perspective is now being sent magically into the head of a creature named "Sabert" who lives in an unknown place on the other side of the galaxy. When your viewpoint enters Sabert's head, he becomes your avatar-the representation of your physical being in that other place.

The darkness fades and, finally, the screen now seems to be a window looking out into some other place. If the world is a First-Person Perspective world, you will not see Sabert himself, because your camera sits on the bridge of his nose. You are seeing only what Sabert can see. If it is a Third-Person Perspective world, your camera floats above Sabert and a little behind him; you can see him, from behind, in the lower center part of the screen. That means that if you look over his head and to the front, you are seeing whatever he is seeing; with this perspective, however, you can also see some things to the side and behind that Sabert cannot see. You can probably switch perspectives from first to third and back, as you prefer. Let's say you prefer the first-person view.

Time to orient yourself; have a look at the surroundings. Looking around the screen you notice a number of controls and information sources. In a mouse-based interface, these will be buttons and clickable windows. In principle, however, the controls could be accessed by voice, or by body movement (your body, not Sabert's). Similarly, information going from the world to you is delivered in the form of information windows, but often audio effects and voices are also used.

Using motion controls, you can move Sabert's head around and, with it, the camera. As you move the view around, your screen reacts just as it would if you had a video camera sending video input to it. And this, of course, is not really different from the way our eyes see things as we move our real heads around: objects move from the corner of our vision to the center, while changes in perspective deliver information about the distance between the objects and our eyes. The objects themselves look physical, in the sense that this camera is sending images of things in a place. If Sabert happens to be an elf or a bear, the surroundings might be a forest. The camera's motion gives you a view of different rocks and flowers and walls and trees out there. If Sabert is a spaceship, of course, the surroundings are not going to be a forest, but rather a space station or planet's surface. If he is a general or a tailor, the surroundings might be a room with appropriate furnishings.


Excerpted from Synthetic Worlds by Edward Castronova Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Edward Castronova is associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, where he specializes in the economic and social impact of multiplayer online video games.

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