My review of Edward Castronova's Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games is in the June issue of the Washington Monthly. I'm giving away the conclusion here, but I was most intrigued by his chapter on "The Economics of Fun," an analysis of the rules and conditions that make a virtual-world economy fun for its players. Castronova doesn't make this point, but to me, his prescription for a "fun" virtual-world economy sounded an awful lot like the prescriptions for the real-world economy offered by the Bill Clinton wing of the Democratic Party. (Mickey Kaus might be be upset by Castronova's emphasis on the importance of beginning virtual life with economic equality, rather than social equality.)
Shorter Washington Monthly: "Edward Castronova thinks the United States faces a looming emigration
crisis. That's right, the problem may be going, not coming, as
America's huddled masses yearn to breathe free in a mysterious land
somewhere beyond the C drive. Once an unknown economics professor at an
obscure university (Cal State Fullerton), Castronova has, over the past
few years, become the world's pre-eminent authority--and go-to quote
for reporters--on the subject of "virtual worlds," persistent online
spaces where thousands of earthlings gather simultaneously. These
online worlds, Castronova insists, are a new frontier, a place where
millions of people will move and reside permanently. Some of them
"Liberals could learn something from the best chapter in Synthetic Worlds: "The Economics of Fun." Drawing upon his experience as a game player and his expertise as an economist, Castronova assembles a list of characteristics that make a virtual world fun. Alongside risk, competition, and acquisition, he lists fairness and equal opportunity. Every new player begins "life" with an identical allotment of abilities and equipment. Inequality quickly surfaces, but players don't mind because they understand that the rules of the game are fair and equitable. "Humans seem to prefer the challenge that inequality represents rather than the security that equality affords--with one very important proviso: everyone's status at the start of the game must be equal," Castronova writes. Of course, video game designers aren't concerned with political ideals; they just want to create a world that's entertaining.
"Perhaps there's 2008 campaign-slogan potential here: It's time to make America fun again. And let's get it done before everyone moves to Norrath."