Life is a game. Edward Castronova brings us face to face with a new twist on the concept in his newest ‘speculative non-fiction’ book, Exodus to the Virtual World; How Online Fun is Changing Reality.
Thumbing through it, you might guess this is a book about a generation of gamers addicted to seeking unending fun, opting out of the real in favor of the virtual. Or, you might think it is a sociological warning about the weird and scary world of gaming cultures, whose millions of inhabitants have entered the mainstream work world and are bringing with them their geeky scary view of society. Or, if you happen to land dead center in the book, you might think Castronova himself is living in a fantasy world where he’s mistaken game society and real world public policy as one.
Well, kind of…but No.
Grasp this book between your two hands, and before you open it, repeat three times: “this is a book of speculative non-fiction.”
And then read every word of it seriously.
The three underlying themes within this book are happening. They may be under the radar, but that doesn’t make them any less real or less disruptive to your near future. If you are in business, pay attention – it has implications for you. If you are a marketer, be aware that you have to get in the game (pun intended). If you are a public official, at least consider the possibilities.
Theme 1: Virtual economies cannot help but affect real world economies. Castronova walks us through how so. The ‘virtual economy’ as a whole is already the size of a small country. Even if people are spending only a small percentage of their time producing, buying, selling virtual goods, it is taking money/production out of the real world economy. As millions of people start doing it and migrating “there” (China is betting on it) and on a growth curve following Moore’s Law, it will make a very big difference to all of us.
“The thought of a new community, society or state emerging on its own territory should give us pause.”
Theme 2: Virtual worlds are fun; the real world is not and people like fun more than “not fun.” What’s not to love? Of course what ‘fun’ actually means here is the key to the title of the book. The case Castronova makes is that people are finding meaning/satisfaction in collaborative game spaces and virtuality that real world structures/systems don’t allow or support. It is the why of virtual world fun-ness that is key here and that may be an imperative for the real world. Fun in Castronova's sense is not ‘meaningless play’ it is challenge, mastery, learning, testing without serious consequences, survival, fairness and the ability for everyone to succeed (if eventually).
But herein lies one of the sticking points I have with Exodus to the Virtual World. Castronova seems to equate virtual worlds, video games and ‘practical virtual reality’ as one and the same, interchangeable, seemingly painting them with the same cultural and structural ‘fun’ brush. They aren’t the same. Motivations, activities and structures are different – but I forgive because this is a book about trends and possibilities – and that is the really important place he takes the reader in his discussion.
Theme 3: Game designers are designers of societies, with the goals of making people happy and improving well-being. Successful public policy might learn from game design. Here’s where you might think “okay – gone too far. I was with you for a while, but time to close the book now.”
Hang in. Of course Castronova, economist that he is, knows life is not ‘the game.’ Not everyone finds these games ‘fun’ or are ‘technographically’ aligned with them (a point Castronova doesn’t make). People do operate in the real world. But he does run the concepts of game design and public policy in parallel with the reader, just asking the question, “can we learn something about human happiness by listening to the multi-disciplinary arena of game design?” If millions of people are migrating into virtual reality, it might be worth at least considering the question (not to mention the reasons).
These are radical and sometimes very impractical ideas. But I have to admit I marked this passage:
“Perhaps the most striking difference between fun policy and real-world policy is in the process of policymaking. Game designers deliberate briefly, then implement policies in test environments and tinker with them for a very long time. Real-world policymakers deliberate for a long time, then implement policies in the real world without any tests at all. Those who have experienced policy effects in both worlds cannot help being impressed by the difference in the policy quality that results.”
Virtual worlds do give us the ability to test real world scenarios – doing that alone could save a lot of real world human pain and distress.
A final point of digression I have with Castronova that I'll note here is that he states no other online experiences allow for these kinds of societal disruptive environments. I disagree – and in fact think by focusing only on 3D virtual worlds as where this is happening is shortsighted. Two-dimensional social networks/social media share many of the characteristics – and implications – of which Castronova speaks in his book.
So, you might think all this isn’t happening, or it is a long way off, or it is far-fetched, or it has no real implications for you or your real world…
Well, early in the year I was in conversation discussing the state of an enormous public institution with a high-ranking government official (of baby boomer age) and she said to me as we discussed solutions, “there must be a way to make it work more like World of Warcraft – how can we make it so people are encouraged and motivated that way?” I swear. It happened – in the "real” world.
Thanks to St. Martin's press for a review copy of Mr. Castronova's book.
December 3, 2007