Balancing Act

Mark Wallace | 25 Oct 2005 12:01
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But Castronova's analysis leads him into some surprisingly dark corners. At several points in the book, for instance, he posits a scenario in which a virtual existence could become more fulfilling and attractive than any that the physical world can provide. Some might maintain that this is already the case: most hardcore MMOG-heads would no doubt rather spend their time hacking orcs than slinging hash. And if they can earn a living while they're doing it, so much the better.

That's a chilling vision of the future, if you ask me. The physical world will always offer things the virtual world will never be able to; at a minimum these include food, air, water and shelter. Now imagine an existence in which that's more or less all you get out of the real world, and most of your deeper satisfactions come from cyberspace. That's a picture of a desperately impoverished physical world. It probably won't come to pass, but it's worth keeping in mind. There is always the danger that we will eventually move too far into virtual worlds. If we turn our backs on the real world, it can only hasten the arrival of a scenario like the one Castronova imagines.

In the near term, of course, there's little danger. In fact, game worlds will probably never provide the conditions in which even making a living is more fun in cyberspace than in meatspace. For a small fraction of gamers, this may be possible. But for game worlds to provide even a subsistence wage for a large number of people at once, they would have to steer themselves away from an economy of fun and toward one that more closely resembles the real world economy that we're contemplating getting away from in the first place. Game worlds would have to become work - at which point people would start looking for their fun somewhere else.

For some, game worlds are already work. Back to China, where one gold-farm worker profiled in a recent article earns $150 a month for overseeing a macro bot in Lineage II. Not a lot of money by Western standards, but according to World Bank figures, it's about 60 percent more than the average monthly wage in China, equivalent to a worker in the U.S. earning almost $4,300 a month instead of the national average of just over $2,675. Is he having fun? I don't think so. According to the article, he puts in 12-hour days during which the most creative activity he gets up to is dodging GMs and angry players.

Fun and profitability are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But the real world hasn't yet found an equilibirum point at which most people love the things that earn them money. Game worlds may offer a larger set of narratives than you can find in the real world, but they support only a smaller set of real activities. There's no reason to think that game worlds will be able to solve the work satisfaction problem anytime soon, if at all.

Game worlds will never really be fit places to hold a job. But far more potential lies in non-game online worlds like Second Life. Even here, though, we've only just begun to scratch the surface. Stories of virtual land barons earning six-figure incomes may raise eyebrows among non-gamers and even get gamers scratching their chins, but from a different point of view, such tales illustrate not how much potential there is in Second Life (the only VW that currently matters in this regard), but how poorly virtual worlds are living up to that potential.

Second Life is on the cutting edge in this regard. However, the fact is that business conditions there, as measured in real world terms, are not yet ready for prime time, for one simple reason: Though Linden Lab advertises Second Life as an online environment created by its residents, a place with unlimited possibility for business, fun and cultural and social exploration, the world runs less like an open experiment and more like a very traditional game-world. It is a world in which the company calls the shots according to a poorly defined set of guidelines, and residents are never really sure which side of the "law" they're on.

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