"Don’t call it an escape; it’s a refuge . . ."

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

That’s what Ted Castronova urged us CCT students to believe during his October 23rd talk. He challenged us to wonder what the world would be like if we all spent some time in Norrath. What Castronova is referring to is the online fantasy worlds in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG). He is challenging people’s dismissal of MMORPG as “simply” games.

Hmmm…remember that moment in The Matrix when…..

Synthetic Worlds, by Ted Castronova In his book, Synthetic Worlds, Castronova painstakingly analyzes the worlds of EverQuest and World of Warcraft (WoW), from a multitude of perspectives. He looks at who plays, analyzes the economies of these worlds and warns us of toxic immersions. His book legitimizes the phenomena and has brought it to the forefront of discussions. What are these worlds that millions spend hours playing in? This fascination began as an Lose Weight Exercise of economics but, when asked about the economic angle, it is clear that for him the phenomenon of economic activity was just a starting point. Where his book left off in 2005 was a serene and lonely image of the last human being on the planet, happily living in his virtual world; not realizing that the rest of the human race had died. In 2007, as he sits across the table, it is clear that his interest has shifted to a larger question – what would make people prefer that world so much, and what can we learn about that?

For Castronova, these worlds are unlike traditional video games because they have an existence beyond the player’s interaction with them. They are persistent; they do not cease to exist when you or any of the other players leave it. He sees them as an alternate place of existence, a place of “refuge” for millions. However, these worlds each operate independently. Does the future hold a digital global village or will we continue to create separate worlds each with their own norms? Castronova, while acknowledging the importance of the question, is not convinced that interoperability should be pursued. In some ways he sees the worlds as a perfect opportunity to observe what humans would do if left on their own. He excitedly talks about the ability to create concurrent worlds where attributes and variables can be isolated and studied for their impact. Mindful of ethical considerations, he talks about ways in which land use or rights are negotiated without the intervention of the authorities or ways in which institutions are created and evolve.

He ended his presentation to the class with pictures of war, quotes from Tolkien, and the plea to not underestimate the power of these digital playgrounds. He stressed the sense of kinship that many users feel, and how millions find themselves more at home online in these worlds than in the real world… and who could blame them? He foresaw the possibility of us getting all the satisfaction we need online one day and asked what that would mean for the future of mankind.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have four level 12 characters living in Azeroth. For those who keep track of these things; one belongs to the Horde and the others to the Alliance. However, I have never mistaken my online characters for me and I have not considered myself a resident of Azeroth. If I ever meet someone who does, I would not feel a sense of kinship, I would simply think they are strange and may need help.

What I find hard to buy into is the Utopian view of the MMORPG as an alternate, less violent alternative to our daily lives. If anything, MMORPG’s are built on the idea of conflict without physical consequence. Most quests involve killing, stealing, and fighting. You could argue that we are being desensitized or that the games act as a pressure valve on our violent tendencies, but what we create online is an extension of our own image. We may be given some choices as to our appearance but we have a limited palette; we are asked to live in a world that is built based on Western mythology and awash with its symbols. Living in these worlds is not taking a brush to a blank canvas but rather coloring in between the lines and shapes. Some would argue that virtual spaces such as Second Life bring us closer to that blank canvas – I disagree. I think that one world is pre-constructed and the other, while emergent, is still within a specified path. Feeling out of place is nothing new, neither is role play or fantasy. Castronova’s point regarding the persistence as a key difference is right on, but these worlds are not built in a vacuum.

Castronova did not directly address these issues in his talk. He did not address the fact that the fantasy world that we step into is that of someone else’s imagination, not our own. So from the world of the politicians we step into the fantasy of the game developers? He brushed aside the critiques raised by assuring the audience that they too would be believers if they spent enough time in these worlds. I’ve spend some time in these worlds and still think that we don’t magically gain agency and we don’t become a nicer version of ourselves that is all about love, peace and harmony. Castronova’s next book, Exodus to the Virtual World is due out at the end of November. Perhaps that’s where he will answer all of these questions. Maybe after reading it I will become a believer too.