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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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3.68

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Published by University of Chicago Press an imprint of UChicagoPress
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

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

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Publish date: Sep 15, 2008
Added to Scribd: Nov 14, 2009
Copyright:Traditional Copyright: All rights reservedISBN:9780226096315
List Price: $18.00

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wbc3_1 reviewed this
Rated 3/5
An excellent reference book on the theory and practice of MMORPGs. It is not nearly as fun to read as other books covering the topic, but it is deeper and looks more at the theory. The book, however, is largely pre-World of Warcraft, so it is in need of an update. Some of its theory, for example, on how to combat inflation in game economies does not mention how WoW attempts to do that. Still, I consider this book to be currently the definitive resource on persistent state online games.
q_and_a reviewed this
Rated 2/5
Were this book explicitly a marketing tool for virtual worlds, I would say job well done. But as a work of scholarship, it is downright embarrassing. The only thing I have to say for it is that the economic analysis in part II does not seem patently ridiculous, but the same cannot be said about the political analysis, and both are predicated on the validity of part I's predictions of the growth and impact of virtual worlds. His logic explaining this predicted growth can only be referred to as spurious.Published in 2006, this book is already dated, and in ways relevant to the author's predictions. His prediction that passive TV watching will decline in favor of virtual worlds is only half-true: instead, we have a flourishing YouTube where people interact with passive media by creating more passive media. The niche of on-line communication medium has been filled by social networking sites. The author predicts that people who grow up with technology will be drawn to virtual worlds, but this has not been the case. The adoption rate of virtual worlds among teenagers pales in comparison to the use of text messaging, social network sites, and other available technologies. This comes as a surprise given how inherently compelling he portrays these virtual worlds. Castronova does not seem to take into consideration the reality of differing preferences. He claims the "natural" place for getting together is cyberspace, and there's no reason to type when you can talk. This kind of thinking permeates his discussion of the future growth of synthetic worlds. Because they can offer, for a certain value of "offer", interaction with a potentially more pleasant world, this does not mean that everyone down on their luck will flock to them-- regardless of how realistic the worlds may get. I think it would be difficult to argue that even enough of a critical mass for the phenomena he describes in part II has the right kind of inclinations to "live" completely in virtual worlds.Castronova frequently employs the rhetorical device of referring to these worlds and everything about them as "real". Certainly, they are "real" in the sense that they are something that people occupy their actual time with, but this does not make them "real" in the sense of an equal alternative to actual life. Throughout the book he uses terminology to blur the line between the two meanings of "real", presumably with the goal of validating his claims about the importance of virtual worlds. He talks about it as a "way of life", about the players as "migrants", and that they have the "potential to become permanent homes for the conscious self" (p. 238). He claims game makers should allow avatars to have all the same human rights in-game as their players do in the real world. It's an argument that only makes sense if you accept that there's no fundamental difference between virtual worlds and the real worlds, and that's a claim that has a much higher burden of proof than his tricky rhetoric can meet.Virtual worlds are a hot topic, and the buzz surrounding them has allowed a scholar to put out absolute crap, assured that the audience will call it "stimulating", "important" and "insightful". If you're going to read this book, cut through the hype and read with an eye towards the logic of his argument. But other than as a first-hand view of the type of faulty reasoning used to convince people that virtual worlds are the Next Big Thing, it's not worth the read.(Q)
humdog reviewed this
Rated 5/5
I think this is, to date, the greatest book written about synthetic worlds. It is also i think the first to take the whole idea of the world "in world" seriously. If you can only read ONE book about games and worlds, this is the one to read. THere are not enough stars to give this book. Castronova can both think and write. He writes in simple english, which most academics cannot do. Absolutely brilliant.
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