I just finished my advance copy of Edward Castronova’s Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun is Changing Reality (2007, Palgrave McMillan.) As anyone familiar with Costronova should expect, the book is provocative and entertaining. Castronova’s central premise is simple: as more and more people spend a larger percentage of their waking hours in virtual worlds, these synthetic environments are going to radically impact how we design our real world societies. He predicts that massively multiplayer online games and virtual worlds are going to affect how government policies are crafted, how businesses are run, and how classes are taught.

He argues that government policy makers should look closely at virtual worlds for guidance in how to craft a society in which the largest percentage of people / players are able to achieve the most happiness. Online games are in his view elaborate social experiments in how to ensure that lots and lots of people have fun over long periods of time. And a government that could ensure a similar goal would be a tremendously successful one.

I am particularly interested in Costronova’s section on the distinction between material wealth and happiness:

In the real world, we live in a time where the “item database” — all of the stuff we have — is bloated beyond all comprehension. Real-world policy makers have focused steadily in growth, even after advanced societies achieved everything fundamental that growth could offer (safety, food, housing, health). It is not easy to see why: Growth is an extraordinary cheap and easy (if deceptive) way to try and make an economy seem fair and fun. It times of growth, opportunities open up that were not there before. Moreover, lots of people have the feeling of “leveling up,” of ending the game with more wealth than they started. Growth does not alleviate isolation, depression, frustration, or rage, but it does give lots of peopl the sensation of being richer. The problem is, it is not at all clear that the sensation of getting richer and richer is perpetually fun. [my emphasis]

He contrasts this with game societies, which are not obsessed with overall economic growth but with individual wealth and item acquisition as the individual achieves particular goals set forth in the game. The amassing of wealth is only part of a larger experience of fun, not the end in itself.

He explains how a society organized around “fun” would make it achievable but still challenging for people to “level up” in the world. Similar to game structure, every player would have to work within the same rule structure and have a more-or-less equal shot at winning the game. But the “game gods” don’t simply give you the shiny sword (or Lexus) because you want one, you still have to work for it.

I think he is right that government’s that only focus on whether everyone has a certain income, or are able to afford a new car or a house, are really missing the point. Money and things don’t equate with happiness. I’m not convinced that making society more like World of Warcraft is the answer, but there’s a lot to recommend a system where millions of players come together to engage in heroic quests of Good versus Evil.

As Castronova says, if more and more people are choosing to spend more and more hours leaving the real world for the virtual one, is that not an important critique of our society? The answer is not to try and restrict people from engaging in online games, but to learn from these synthetic worlds what can make the physical world more rewarding and fun.

Whether or not you agree with Castronova’s predictions, Exodus is a breezy and entertaining read for anyone who is interested in the larger societal impacts of multiplayer gaming and virtual worlds.