Friday, December 26, 2008

Book Notes: Exodus to the Virtual World

I guess I've been revisiting my own ideas on virtual worlds and the immersive internet these past few months and picked up a copy of Castonova's "Exodus to the Virtual World" to see how things have been evolving since reading his first book "Synthetic Worlds." It is my opinion that his first book was quite a bit better, although this book does really expand on where virtual worlds are headed in more tangible ways.

The book is really interesting, if not way out there. While the idea of people "migrating" to virtual worlds seems (and feels) odd to me, Castronova makes some extremely compelling and interesting points given from an economist's perspective of the world. That said, I'm not so sure his core concept is valid. It would help me if I were a social scientist and had any sort of knowledge to validate or debunk his thesis.

For scale's sake, Castronova points out that "when 100 million people do something" governments need to take notice. He speaks a lot about "policy making" in the virtual world and does a good job outlining the core areas needed for good policy both in the real, and virtual world.

The main point of the book however, is simple. If people can get a better quality of life by inhabiting virtual worlds, they'll do so - and en masse.

A few things jumped out at me as I read the book, presence being one of the stranger concepts to grasp I thought. What exactly is presence when inhabiting a virtual world? Perhaps "attention" is a better way to think about presence - that is to say that what you are focused on is actually where you are at any given time. The phrase "gaze is location" was a bit of a mind trip for me.

In the chapter named "The Fun Society," Castronova imagines a company modeled on how virtual worlds work. I think in the entire book, this fascinated me more than anything. Below are a few key things that made me stop and think:

"New employees wouldhave to work their way into the company just as new players work their way into games: they start at low levels and work their way up."

"They acquire reputations as good drivers, good mechanics, good forklift operators. Once they get enough points, they are allowed to look for bigger jobs at a different loading dock."

"Management would organize all this activity by stating when and whre it would give out points."

"In general, a company organized along these lines would operate the weird emergent order that one sees in games. Instead of ad hoc bands of one hundred people marching more or less after one another the other into a dungeon to do battle with a dragon and get treasure, it would be ad hoc bands of workers gathering more or less where and when needed to perform some work task to which explicit rewards had been attached."

I'm not sold on that vision, but it is extremely compelling to think through.

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