EMERGENT CULTURE: INSTITUTIONS
WITHIN SYNTHETIC REALITY
It is perhaps shocking to think that, even at their comparatively small size of a dozen million or so participants, synthetic worlds are already beginning to affect the “outside” world, by which I mean the ordinary institutions of human connection: marriages, the web, markets, companies.1 Yet it is so; it seems that the patterns of behavior spawned by synthetic worlds are not completely contained within them, so that the way people act in other contexts is affected. The most obvious case (though thoroughly anecdotal, in that there have been no studies on this) involves marriages and other close relationships. People who spend all their time pursuing friendships and romance online are choosing to let their offline relationships wither. The institution of online friendship takes away time from the institution of offline friendship. This interaction of institutions, cultures, and the “rules of the game” happens because no one can actually spend every moment inside a virtual world. Even those who try to build a life in cyberspace do come out from time to time, and even if they did not, their absence would make a difference. And so there are already observable phenomena in the real world that have only happened because of the emergence of the synthetic world. But before we can outline some of these external changes (the subject of part 2), we need to describe, in this chapter, the kinds of macro-level behavior we typically see inside the worlds.
In describing behavior, I will treat the terms “institutions,” “culture,” “behavior patterns,” and “rules of the game” as more or less interchangeable. This usage, which I’ve found extraordinarily helpful in the analysis of macro-level evolution of human society, derives from the notion of institutions as developed by scholars operating in the borderlands between economics, political science, and mathematical game theory. Institutional theory tends to be different things to different