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15 Feb 2009

In Exodus to the Virtual World, Dr. Edward Castronova explores a possible future wherein participation in virtual worlds and MMOs becomes so widespread that major social effects are felt here in the real world. He suggests that as more people spend more time in virtual worlds, they will come to expect the real world to provide many of the conveniences of those virtual worlds: more fairness, more opportunity, more fun. This, he theorizes, will lead to a conflict over attention between the real and the virtual, with the real world being forced to adopt social policies inspired by game design.

The author frequently suggests that game designers may be better-equipped than most to handle the social policy issues of the 21st century and beyond. As a game designer, I found this rather gratifying, though I remain skeptical whether it's actually true. However, the parallels he draws between social policy design and virtual world design are compelling, and many of the mechanics we find today in virtual worlds and MMOs are in fact elegant solutions to social issues that have yet to even be well-addressed in the real world.

This book is primarily a speculative, futurist work. Many of the author's claims go largely unsubstantiated precisely for that reason: they're speculations into one possible future. I had no problem with this, and the author makes it clear up front what type of book this is. You just have to come into it with the right mindset. That said, he does frequently reference verifiable present-day facts in order to establish trends which inform his projections, making them more educated predictions than wild guesses.

My only major complaint with the book is that, as the author has extrapolated the present state of virtual worlds and MMOs into a vision of future society, he's undertaken significant cognitive effort to evolve the social side of things, and spent almost no effort on the evolution of the virtual worlds and MMOs themselves. In effect, there seems to be an unstated assumption throughout the book that the design of virtual worlds and MMOs will remain largely static, and that the only variable will be the percentage of the population participating in them. But if the relatively brief history of video games shows us anything, it's that we can expect meteoric paradigm shifts in games around every 5-10 years. Relevant examples include the introduction of the first text-based MUD, the first graphical MUD, and the original Everquest. Why should we not expect similar paradigm shifts to dramatically alter the landscape of virtual worlds and MMOs in the next 5, 10, 20, even 50 years? And of course, these paradigm shifts will affect how users participate in those worlds, which will in turn affect their expectations of the real world in accordance with the author's theory.

Nevertheless, Exodus to the Virtual World comes well-recommended. It's a thought-provoking read for game designers and players alike, and I'm willing to bet some politicans could learn a thing or two from it as well. ;)

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