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Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games

Author: Edward Castranova
Publisher: Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005
Review Published: November 2006

 REVIEW 1: Leif Schumacher

    Perhaps synthetic worlds have begun to offer a new mythology. Perhaps this mythology will be [sic] eventually be successful, credible, even sublime, so that we will find ourselves in an Age of Wonder. And perhaps right now we really are living in an age of boredom. If all those possibilities are true, not just a few people, or many, but everyone will eventually want to spend their time in synthetic worlds. (276)
In this 310-page (including informative notes and appendix) whirlwind tour of online gaming, Edward Castranova, economist turned virtual visionary, offers many ideas and predictions like those above that he convinces us to take seriously based on careful observation and reasoning. Bold claims must be able to withstand tough questioning, and Castranova does not survive on all counts once the looking glass of careful scrutiny is done with its examination. However, if you can look past the overly optimistic forecasting, this book will provide a comprehensive analysis of the current online gaming environment that should prove informative whether you are only casually curious or you are heavily involved in the industry.

First, let me introduce the premise of his work. Castranova projects that at the time of writing his book, more than 10 million people across the globe access so-called synthetic worlds on a regular basis. He also forecasts that by the time the book is published, e-Bay and other auction/trade portals will see around $100 million of trade involving items created inside synthetic worlds. Castronova describes how people have met and fallen in love in synthetic worlds and eventually gotten married; he speaks of political activism in synthetic worlds, and of the dangers of addiction. Based on these facts, his main argument is that synthetic worlds are more than a passing phenomenon. Existing in synthetic worlds constitutes a social practice that has real consequences economically, socially, politically, and legally, and therefore must be taken seriously. His book stands as one contribution towards this goal.

So, what are these synthetic worlds? Basically, synthetic worlds is the term invented by Castranova to describe online computer games heavily reliant on advanced graphics that create life-like fantasies. The most popular current example is World of Warcraft by Blizzard (owned by Vivendi) that has a user base of more than 6 million people (Carless, 2006). These worlds are accessible from anywhere as long as you are in the possession of the necessary hardware (a good computer and broadband Internet connection) and software (the game of your choice). They bring together people from across the globe that spend time fighting, chatting, trading, flirting, arguing, exploring, and much more using their online, graphically depicted personas -- so-called avatars. In the first 80 pages of the book (chapters 1 and 2), Castranova does a commendable job of taking the reader through a tour of what synthetic worlds look and feel like. Castranova truly shines in this descriptive mode, and this part is entertaining and informative even for someone that already has first-hand knowledge of how these worlds operate. Of particular interest is the statistics he provides regarding who makes up the population of synthetic worlds. They go a long way of dispelling any myths that still linger about computer game players being male teenage anti-social geeks. Combined with his own data based on surveys done on fan websites, Castranova gets his point across that these people could be anyone, including you and me.

Castranova continues to show a steady hand as he describes the mechanics of synthetic worlds. In chapters 3 and 4, the reader is provided with fascinating insights into the challenges involved in creating and managing these worlds. Castronova uses captivating language to make issues such as coding artificial intelligence of non-player characters (NPCs), creating a sufficient level of immersion, and managing the social complexity of synthetic worlds sound like challenging and interesting projects rather than boring computer programming tasks. In chapter 5, which concludes Part I of the book, Castranova walks us through the market conditions under which the creators of synthetic worlds (most often large teams of programmers working for large software companies such as Sony) have to operate. Economically speaking, he identifies synthetic worlds with public goods, which are goods that can be consumed by more than one person at a time (another example would be TV signals; a non-public good would be a carrot). More specifically, he introduces us to the economic terminology of local public goods and club goods. Adhering to the logic of these types of goods, synthetic worlds pose challenges for creators that need to balance the search for increased revenue with the risk that adding more users might decrease the overall level of enjoyment due to congestion.

The complexity of Castranova's argument increases in Part II. Borrowing terminology from economics, sociology, anthropology, law, political science, and psychology, he expands on his argument that the lines between virtual (synthetic worlds) and real are blurring, and he attempts to explore what the implications are. The synthetic world is just as real as the real world, and this is demonstrated by the creation of value, the interference of law, the problem of good governance, and the potential use of synthetic worlds for real world terrorism.

Castranova makes a good case for how the creation of value in synthetic worlds is just as real (or just as virtual) as value creation in the real world. For example, in chapter 6, he mentions how unskilled labor in developing countries are engaged in so-called gold mining (repeating certain tasks in synthetic worlds that yield virtual gold and then selling it on e-Bay), and this leads to devaluation of gold in the game. In other words, cheap labor has impacted prices of a virtual item that might as well have been real t-shirts. Unfortunately, Castranova does not expand any further on what this kind of sweat-shop practice actually entails in terms of real world effects for these laborers. However, it is interesting to note that there appears to be an expanding market for these kinds of virtual goods that has even attracted corporate interests. As Castranova reveals, there are still many challenges to operations in this market, which often wades into murky legal waters when the property rights of users come up against the end user licensing agreement and terms of service set down by the developers.

One of the most interesting sections of the book is found in part II. In chapter 8, we witness a fusion between Castranova's knowledge of economics and his passion for online gaming. He engages in a discussion of how to make markets within synthetic worlds operate more efficiently, and how to make them fun! For example, he makes some valid points regarding consumable versus durable goods (too many durable goods make for an inactive and dull market!), and overall he introduces a plethora of ideas (for example, charging real money for virtual storage space) that synthetic world makers should pay attention to. This discussion also affirms the message that constructing synthetic worlds is a massively complex task. Further evidence of this is found in chapter 9, where Castranova explains the challenges of governance within synthetic worlds. More often than not, these worlds operate in a state of violent chaos only alleviated through not allowing player versus player combat. Governments are not formed in synthetic worlds as has inevitably happened in the real world when large amounts of people live close together and find the need to coordinate their efforts. Drawing on Hobbes as the relevant voice of political philosophy, Castranova explains that this is due to the fact that the authority to manipulate the game environment lies with the game creators, and they most often choose a hands-off approach. Not surprising considering that their main motive is a drive for profits, and as long as subscriptions are being sold, they would rather spend their resources on enhancing the level of immersion or creating completely different worlds altogether (new revenue streams in other words). The latter is actually a point Castranova fails to make, and this becomes a weakness throughout the book as his argument about how synthetic worlds could positively affect our lives on this planet keeps getting repeated, without fully debating how feasible this is considering the corporate involvement in developing synthetic worlds for the sake of profit. His solution is presented in the form of synthetic worlds run through peer-to-peer networking, but the massive resources involved in setting up and managing such a system (at least on the scale envisioned here) seem ripe for the involvement of corporate interests.

Throughout his discussions in part I and II, Castronova often alludes to his thoughts about the future potential and impact of synthetic worlds. He notes: "Some kind of shift in social salience, by which the synthetic world comes to bear as much weight as the real world, is likely to happen within the next few generations" (146) and "Games are becoming such an integral part of daily life that the distinction between gaming and life may be fading as well" (158). Part III puts more focus on this line of thought, by entering his forecasting mode. This is, unfortunately, where his argumentation starts to encounter some serious obstacles.

In Part III, we fully encounter Castranova the Visionary and he is very different from Castronova the Economist. Where the latter would delight us with vivid and insightful analyses of the mechanics of virtual world creation and operation, Castranova the Visionary delves into postmodern language and imagination in an attempt to convince us that a great future is in store as humanity migrates into increasingly life-like and complex synthetic worlds. Some disturbing scenarios are also provided, but the main focus of his vision is on the opportunities for a safe, tolerant, and entertaining existence that will shield us from the disease and destruction of the real world. Why would people seek this existence? Simply put, because the real world is boring and dangerous, and because new technology will make it possible. He serves us a vision of massive computing power in the hands of the individual, Moore's Law ad infinitum, but no discussion of how the billions of people that currently have no computer, let alone broadband Internet access, can become part of this. In many ways, Castranova sounds very similar to the digital idealists and visionaries of decades past that promised us freedom and prosperity through the use of modern information and communication technology (see Toffler, 1981; Negroponte, 1995; Cairncross, 1997). Their visions have yet to materialize, and chances are that Castranova will end up in the same camp.

Towards the end of the book, he finally takes a slightly different swing at his vision: "If the synthetic world is becoming more popular, because it has some things that are missing on Earth, attention should be paid to making the Earth better" (278). However, no more is said about the matter. No conclusion is made that perhaps the escape into synthetic worlds should be read as an indictment of current human practices that pushes us to seek alternative realities, that perhaps the place to make the world better is actually the place where we give birth, breathe, eat, bleed, and die, not in some computer generated space that is essentially created as a new form of entertainment.

Castronova's journey through synthetic worlds takes us through strands of thinking borrowing from psychology, sociology, philosophy, and of course economics. Since Castronova only claims thorough knowledge of the latter, his ideas often sound a bit forced and awkward when delving into the other disciplines. However, there are still some very interesting insights on display, which reflect the fact that he must have spent considerable time pondering the problems and possibilities of synthetic and real worlds that span from physical conflict to spirituality. If he could only have stayed in the descriptive mode that he so clearly masters, and avoided the role of visionary where so many have failed before.

Cairncross, F. (1997). The death of distance: How the communications revolution will change our lives. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Carless, S. (2006). "Blizzard re-evaluating World Of WarCraft Chinese partner." Gamasutra, April 14. Retrieved April 18, 2006, from http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=8918

Negroponte, N. (1995). Being digital. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Toffler, A. (1981). The third wave. New York: Bantam Books.

Leif Schumacher:
Leif Schumacher is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. His current research is primarily focused on the political economy of the Canadian interactive games industry, but he is also interested in the global video games industry, and the definition and classification of cultural industries.  <leifeschumacher@hotmail.com>

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