Nicholas's Reviews > Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games

Synthetic Worlds by Edward Castronova
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's review
Oct 13, 2010

liked it
bookshelves: economics, internet
Read in August, 2010

** spoiler alert ** Pretty interesting topic but boring delivery. I stopped halfway through and then just skimmed what looked like the more interesting parts. This is still the future though.

The economics stuff in world design was pretty interesting. Where do you put npcs, are there arbitrage opportunities, are there internal or external markets, inflation...

This brings up the question of where play ends and work begins. I've definitely been in positions where a video game has been less than fun. Grinding and such. Why do people engage in this boring task? What motivates players in this game. And what will happen when working in a game pays more than working outside of one?

There will be no Fight Club. They're all too busy playing WoW.


"You are free as an individual to decide whether any particular thing has value for you, but it is not up to you to decide what value these things have for society. Society decides that. Society consists of thousands or millions of people in decentralized relationships, quietly expressing their interest; the aggregate effect of their activity is to create an anonymous force that dictates the price of things. Once this force has determined that a certain diamond or digital bottle is worth $50, that is the end of the story. Its value is $50. And you would be wise to accept that judgment yourself...all things that the market values do have a value, for everyone. If the price of a thing is $500, it is worth $500 to everyone, either in use or in trade."

"The silver piece is not merely like money, it is money."

"The basic message is that there are many more users than you might imagine; their numbers are growing rapidly; they are located in places you'd never suspect; they are not the people you thought they would be; and their motives seem to be both sensible and loaded with heavy implications."

"The margin of society is not likely to be the permanent home for the people and practices involved with virtual worlds. Most new-term projections indicate, in fact, that the lifestyle described in chapter 1 will be part of ordinary life for a rapidly growing fraction of the Earth's population."

"Hard-core players seem less invested in EverQuest than the average adult is invested in television."

"At the most fundamental level, these games are about empowerment and achievement, providing a never-ending sense of increasing importance and power to the player in the form of ever larger and more important-sounding skills, items, numbers, and achievements for their character...At this very fundamental level, MMO's...provide a vacation from the pointlessness of life's rat race, where no amount of effort can ensure you do more than tread water, because in the end, only a few people can be the big winners in the Game of Life."

"Put simply, if we could all live in a world that came closer to our fantasies than this world, how many would resist the temptation to do it?"

"This opens the possibility of peer-to-peer open-source worlds that grow of their own accord, as a kind of alternative Earth beyond anyone's control. Such a prospect is exciting to some, frightening to others."

"It should be possible to build and store reputational identities that are accessible, on a voluntary basis, in different world platforms. Those who have good reputations can make use of them in many places. Those who do not can still start over. Portable reputations would also settle a number of security concerns."

"The game mechanics utilize processes of self-selection to encourage players to take roles that suit them emotionally."

"Yes, if one disbelieves the fantasy, the whole process may seem to be a meaningless treadmill, with no more of an outcome than that offered by a life of dull work on Earth. But what are the alternatives? The task as described in the original myth of Sisyphus is terribly frustrating. It would be almost a s frustrating, horrifying even, to have the rock roll over the hill into an endless valley, where there were no more mountains to conquer. Game over--and nothing to do for the rest of eternity. A sequence of never-ending, ever-increasing challenges means a sequence of never-ending conquests and never-ending improvements, which may well be the sublime state even if there is no fantasy to make it seem meaningful. But why disbelieve the fantasy? If enjoying the Quest of the Rock requires a bit of mental effort, a bit of disbelief suspension, it is worth doing. It is especially sensible to do if the alternative is to labor endlessly on the demystified Earth, knowing that one is achieving nothing at all, never experiencing that moment when the stone rolls down the other side, never feeling one's muscles bulging with new strength. Between these alternatives, the choice is clear and sensible. In short, my guess is that Sisyphus would have gladly abandoned his traditional fate to advance himself in a MMORPG. The implications of this choice which I'll take up in the last chapter, are potentially quite far-reaching."

"How do you make a world in which everyone is in the top 10 percent? The answer: AI. With AI, all people in the world are equal, but some people, the player avatars, are more equal than others--specifically, the nonplayer avatars, the AI-driven robots. Players can be allowed to garner all the important achievements, while bots occupy the other 90 percent of the prestige distribution. With enough personalized AI, all of the player avatars can be in the top10 percent; they all can be made to feel more equal than others."

"Better AI, more than anything else, can help overcome the paradox of a world where everyone wants to be a hero at the same time."

"The synthetic world is something of an instantly globalized labor market."

"No one wants to wait for a system to move toward social justice on its own. Very few people are satisfied with ideas like sorting and healthy competition as an explanation for the decrease in wellbeing they are suffering. As with all political debates, no one wants to wait for "eventually" to come around."
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