The multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft has become one of the most popular computer games of the past decade, introducing millions around the world to community-based play. Within the boundaries set by its design, the game encourages players to appropriate and shape the game, resulting in highly diverse and creative forms of participation. Battlefields of Negotiation analyzes the complex relationship between groups of World of Warcraft players and the game’s owners and developers. A timely look at an important digital phenomenon, the book sheds new light on complex consumer-producer relationships in the increasingly participatory but still tightly controlled world of online games.
A wedding ceremony in a Web-based virtual world. Online memorials commemorating the dead. A coffee klatch attended by persons thousands of miles apart via webcams. These are just a few of the ritual practices that have developed and are emerging in online settings. Such Web-based rituals depend on the merging of two modes of communication often held distinct by scholars: the use of a device or mechanism to transmit messages between people across space, and a ritual gathering of people in the same place for the performance of activities intended to generate, maintain, repair, and renew social relations. In Online a Lot of the Time, Ken Hillis explores the stakes when rituals that would formerly have required participants to gather in one physical space are reformulated for the Web. In so doing, he develops a theory of how ritual, fetish, and signification translate to online environments and offer new forms of visual and spatial interaction. The online environments Hillis examines reflect the dynamic contradictions at the core of identity and the ways these contradictions get signified.
Hillis analyzes forms of ritual and fetishism made possible through second-generation virtual environments such as Second Life and the popular practice of using webcams to “lifecast” one’s life online twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Discussing how people create and identify with their electronic avatars, he shows how the customs of virtual-world chat reinforce modern consumer-based subjectivities, allowing individuals to both identify with and distance themselves from their characters. His consideration of web-cam cultures links the ritual of exposing one’s life online to a politics of visibility. Hillis argues that these new “rituals of transmission” are compelling because they provide a seemingly material trace of the actual person on the other side of the interface.
Star Worlds explores the future-oriented universe of online virtual worlds connected with popular science fiction—specifically, with Star Wars and Star Trek—that have been inhabited for over a decade by computer gamers. The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, both of which have shaped the dominant science fiction mythologies of the last half-century, offer profound conceptions of the tension between freedom and control in human economic, political, and social interactions. Bainbridge investigates the human and technological dynamics of four online virtual worlds based on these two very different traditions: the massive multiplayer online games Star Wars Galaxies; Star Wars: The Old Republic; Star Trek Online; and the Star Trek community in the non-game, user-created virtual environment, Second Life.
The four “star worlds” explored in this book illustrate the dilemmas concerning the role of technology as liberator or oppressor in our post-industrial society, and represent computer simulations of future possibilities of human experience. Bainbridge considers the relationship between a real person and the role that person plays, the relationship of an individual to society, and the relationship of human beings to computing technology. In addition to collecting ethnographic and quantitative data about the social behavior of other players, he has immersed himself in each of these worlds, role-playing 14 avatars with different skills and goals to gain new insights into the variety of player experience from a personal perspective.
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