Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games

By Edward Castronova | Go to book overview
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1. In the TV program Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Holodeck was a room on the Enterprise spaceship that could be programmed to create environments and people that were completely indistinguishable from real places and people.

2. Cyberspace in general has also been described in terms of “normal people in an unusual place.” A literature, too large to be usefully cited here, has investigated all kinds of online activity for implications and meanings. An axiom maintained throughout this book, however, is that synthetic worlds represent something truly different from chat, instant messaging, webcams, blogs, and the like. None of those media invoke the Earth and the Earth body as metaphors for interaction. Indeed, much of the extant literature focuses on the disembodiment of users who are online in a nonphysical space. With synthetic worlds, however, we do not have disembodiment; rather, we have bodies of choice. We do not have a space devoid of all Earthly constraints; rather, we have a space with Earth-like constraints of choice. The difference is significant enough that we need to look at synthetic worlds as unique, new objects, not just extensions of pre-existing online activity. The 1990s literature about immersive online activity was, in the end, concerned with the behavior of perhaps several tens of thousands of people, most of them college students and information industry workers. Today’s synthetic worlds are visited by millions and millions of people from all walks of life. There is every possibility that their behavior and experiences are qualitatively different from that which has gone before.

3. To extend the metaphor further, one could invoke the orchestra—the Greek chorus—which, intervening as it does between stage and audience, is somewhat analogous to the machines with which online game players must interact to enter the synthetic world.

4. Jacques: “All the world’s a stage, / And all the men and women merely players” (act 2, scene 7).

5. Ongoing data are reported on my homepage at and analyzed at the blog to which I contribute, Terra Nova (

6. There are a number of general histories of the video game and its effect on culture in the late twentieth century: Rushkoff 1996; Herz 1997; Poole 2000; Kent 2001.

7. The famous Moore’s Law, actually a conjecture pronounced in 1965 by Gordon Moore, holds that raw computing power will double every year or three. Events have proven the conjecture largely true so far, and most experts in computing believe it will continue to hold for some time. Things that double within fixed time periods grow exponentially, meaning that their level changes dramatically in the course of a few human generations. A quantity of 1,000 units doubling annually becomes 1 billion units in just 20 years. It is revealing that much of the debate among technology experts is not about the likelihood of significant computational advance, but about its implications. The authors already cited believe that AI will attain consciousness, while John Searle (1997) argues that it will not. Similarly techno-futurists say that increases in computation will radically change society, but Brown and Duguid (2000) wisely point out that there is as much work to be done in applying computation fruitfully to our


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Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games


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