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  • Book Review: Exodus to the Virtual World

    [02.12.08]
    - Raymond Hutchins
  •  Famous for his stint as a video game expert on 60 Minutes and for his groundbreaking book Synthetic Worlds, self-described video game scholar Edward Castronova does what academics are not supposed to do: He writes a piece of easy-to-understand fiction.

    His new book, Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality, can be called fiction because it's about the future, 20 to 40 years from now. Castronova describes a collision between virtual worlds and the real world that results in a better world. I'm not sure I totally buy that particular vision, but more on that shortly.

    Technologically speaking, the world we inhabit today is far different from the world we knew only five years ago. Computers are far more powerful and connected by faster and wider pipes. In the gaming world, that has enabled a move from isolated desktop-based gaming to vast, inter-connected virtual worlds.

    Today, at any one time, tens of millions of people dwell and interact in virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life. Within a year or so, that number (worldwide) will regularly be in the hundreds of millions. Within ten years, the number could conceivably be counted in the billions. That translates into a large percentage of the human population choosing to spend a great deal of time every day in virtual worlds, as opposed to the "real" world.

    This shift represents a human exodus from the real world to the virtual world, a vast migration. Why are people choosing to do this and what are the implications of such a migration? What will it mean for our families, societies, and economies? What will it mean for our personal relationships and our other relationships, including the one with our government? Government? Yes, this relationship in particular will be affected, as Castronova sees it.

    According to Castronova, the reason people are choosing to migrate to virtual worlds is that the real world is not such a fun place, and virtual worlds are cleverly designed from the get-go to be fun. Of course, we all know that human beings spend their time doing fun things whenever they can, regardless of what parents and their governments have to say about it.

    Naturally, as more and more people spend more time in virtual worlds designed to provide fun experiences, when they're forced to come back to the real world they tend to increasingly arrive with expectations that the real world should be more fun. Why, therefore, can't real-world processes be designed to be more enjoyable? Already people are asking why learning and training have to be dull and tedious. Castronova says there will inevitably more pressure from virtual inhabitants on real-world institutions and those who run them to re-shape our world into a more fun environment.

    That may seem a bit of a stretch, considering that those who run the institutions right now are organizing themselves to restrict and control interactive gaming. But it makes sense that when hundreds of millions of people spend significant portions of their time in virtual worlds, things will inevitably change. The fact is they already are, and it's just the beginning.

    Many companies (including my own) are focusing on using interactive technologies to make learning more fun and more effective. Virtual economies are now springing up to accommodate real business life in virtual worlds, and it's no secret that something as fundamental as sex has already been vitally affected by the virtual world.

    At this point, game design can only be described as embryonic, but as time passes, we can only imagine to what extent game design will become more incorporated into the things we do. As more ways are created to let people actually sustain themselves and make a living in virtual world economies, the migration will only accelerate. According to Castronova, this will force policymakers and institutions to respond and accommodate the desires of virtual-worlders.

    Maybe.

    But in my mind, it is as equally possible that policymakers may very well welcome the departure of millions of people to virtual worlds. Maybe the migration will represent a huge drop out of society, so that the number of people left paying attention to the real world, its problems, and the people managing those problems will radically decline.

     Castronova has "gone where no man has gone before" and is asking some very stimulating questions. It may be too soon to agree on all the answers, but he has certainly taken the time and effort to frame the right questions, and there's no doubt about it -- for anyone involved in video gaming, this book is an intriguing peek into the future.

    Review by Raymond Hutchins

    Book Stats
    Exodus to the Virtual World:
    How Online Fun is Changing Reality
    By Edward Castronova
    Palgrave Macmillan, 2007
    256 pages
    $24.95

    Raymond Hutchins is president of the SimGame Exchange, an organization that helps businesses use interactive gaming technologies to improve business performance. He is also the president of the Interactive Gaming and Simulations Alliance in Boulder, Co.

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