posted 5 Jun 2008 in Volume 11 Issue 9
Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality
Author: Edward Castronova
Publisher: Palgrave McMillian, New York, NY
Publication date: November 2007
By Victoria Axelrod
Imagine a future where 40 per cent of real economic production (GDP) is generated in a virtual world people call their ‘actual home’; (new world) interaction informs public policy in the real (old) world; life is fun; relatively inexpensive; and a common shared purpose exists.
Millions of us carbon-based folks frequent synthetic environments in the silicon space of massive multi-player online games (MMOGs) or synthetic worlds such as World of WarCraft and Second Life. We are only generating a tiny fraction of economic wealth in these worlds now. However, Edward Castronova, author of Exodus to the Virtual World, predicts a shift in 20 to 30 years or sooner. From an economic standpoint Castronova considers virtual production and trade “an exchange of value and therefore it counts, in the real world terms”, hence the GDP reference. Time and money not spent in the real world while online is an additional factor.
Castronova is director of Graduate Studies in Telecommunications and Associate Professor at
Exodus to Virtual Worlds is philosophically provocative, forewarning the impact synthetic worlds will have on the real world of government, public policy, economics and happiness. It is not recommended as a how-to-book for business leaders wanting to experiment in virtual worlds. Instead, try his Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games.
Tens of millions of people worldwide have made the ‘exodus’ to some virtual fantasy space by means of an ‘avatar’. Castronova predicts hundreds of millions over the next two generations, some of the most tech-savvy types, will have never heard of Second Life. Grand Theft Auto is another story.
The impact of raised expectations arising from virtual experiences is evident in Castronova’s real life practices as seen in his use of a virtual gaming scenario as design for a real world conference to reach consensus on public policy for synthetic worlds. Convening a diverse group of close to 400 delegates, who had to earn the right to present papers by moving ahead in the game, is not your usual conference model. “Speculative nonfiction”, Castronova admits, is not the usual territory for academics.
Key predictions from Exodus are:
Our reality will be changed …You can’t pull millions of person-hours out of a society without creating an atmospheric-level event. Castronova notes both the economic and societal changes.
The public at large will come to think of game design and public policy design as roughly similar activities.
There will be crossovers in know how…between game designers and policy analysts.
We will have to come to a new and more rigorous understanding of human happiness.
Content of Exodus is well-grounded in media, psychology, economics, game theory and policy research which Castronova cites without making the text overly academic – “What every economist knows: when something entertaining appears at an affordable price, people go for it in droves.”
Implications of Exodus for business leaders, marketers – any one involved with organisational learning, innovation and knowledge – are significant. Not from the prosaic manner in which online space is used to conduct business or learning virtually but rather to understand game design tenants, game behavior, ‘networked graphical sociality’ and how these will change real world expectations.
eMarketer estimates 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today, so get ready for changed expectations.
You may not agree with everything in Castronova’s book or find all of the answers you seek, but do read it for a perspective on the ascending influence and potential of a new frontier – virtual worlds.