Magazine article The Futurist

Worlds to Conquer Online: Multiplayer Gaming Comes of Age; Imaginary Worlds Enable Billions to Act out Their Dreams, and Computerized Fantasies Offer Opportunities to Make Real Money

Magazine article The Futurist

Worlds to Conquer Online: Multiplayer Gaming Comes of Age; Imaginary Worlds Enable Billions to Act out Their Dreams, and Computerized Fantasies Offer Opportunities to Make Real Money

Article excerpt

Telecommunications scholar Edward Castronova takes computer games seriously, and with good reason.

"The line between games and real life has become blurred," he warns, wondering "how much this blurring will change the nature of daily life for our children and grandchildren."

As an economist and professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, Castronova has spent years monitoring the rise and spread of a global phenomenon unlike anything that has ever existed before--the MMORPG (pronounced "mor-peg"), or "massively multiplayer online role-playing game."

MMORPGs are sites on the Internet where computer users come together to exchange information, do business, seek amusing adventures, build cities, hunt monsters, or even make war and kill one another--all dressed up in the "costume" of an imaginary character they have created for themselves.

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In video arcade shoot-em-ups and handheld offline computer games, single players, or at most a handful, confront robotlike opponents (often referred to as "bots") or strive to work through challenges generated entirely by the game program in their machine. But multiplayer online games provide something more: Besides elaborately detailed visual environments and a system of rules that govern action and movement, MMORPGs leave most decisions and actions to the human players themselves. This leads to genuine interaction of all kinds--from simple chat and bargaining for goods to friendship, long-term alliances, love affairs, or, at the other extreme, rivalry, confrontation, and warfare.

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While many in the United States and Europe still dismiss online role-playing as a relatively insignificant pastime, the popularity and economic impacts of this pursuit are growing rapidly. Worldwide, more than 10 million individuals are regular players, many of whom spend 20 hours a week or more gaming. And the sheer number of online role-playing game sites, or "synthetic worlds," as Castronova calls them, is rising fast--currently doubling every two years.

Of particular interest to Castronova as an economist is the fact that each synthetic world has its own currency, which players use within the game to buy and sell useful items, such as weapons, food, magic spells, and spaceships. Several of the "play money" currencies from popular online games now trade against the U.S. dollar on eBay, often at rates higher than those of real currencies, such as the Japanese yen and the Korean won.

Already, there is real money to be made by gaining experience and treasures in the "pretend" universe of online role-playing games and then selling these commodities to other online players. Journalist Julian Dibell reports that, as an experiment, he managed to earn more than $2,000 each month for an entire year in this manner. Other valuable items up for trade include ready-made characters whose accumulated wealth and experience give them an advantage over other players in quests and combat situations. Such trade now tops more than $30 million a year in the United States alone and $100 million worldwide, Castronova reports. As gaming becomes ever more popular, he predicts the demand for gameworld-usable tools, cash, and skills will only increase. …

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