Balancing Act

Mark Wallace | 25 Oct 2005 12:01
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For every Anshe Chung in Second Life, there is at least one other virtual entrepreneur who has found conditions on the Grid to be less than conducive to entrepreneurial success. After Linden Lab announced it would get into the virtual currency exchange business recently, the most popular Linden-dollar exchange service chose to close its doors rather than try to compete with what was essentially a monopoly. Even Anshe herself, one of the most successful businesspeople on the Grid, has had a number of complaints about inconsistent policy decisions being handed down by Linden Lab, and many similar cases have been reported by other residents.

To realize the potential of a place like Second Life, cyberspace will have to learn to differentiate between game-worlds and virtual environments. To keep game worlds fun, companies will probably have to keep a tight and fairly arbitrary rein on how they're managed and make sure they retain enough authority to guide the world in the direction they want it to go. There's a lot of latitude here, though, because there are a lot of different things people find fun. If you don't like how one game world is run, there's probably another that will satisfy you, or there will be soon.

To carve out a corner of cyberspace that's truly a platform for experiments in business, culture, society and fun, though, non-game virtual worlds will have to let go of the reins just a bit and provide the kind of conditions under which these things flourish in the real world. Creating those conditions, though, involves a lot of hard work - as well as a measure of fun. Intense analysis and careful planning goes into hammering out and then maintaining real-world institutions like clear frameworks for rights and responsibilities, coherent and effective policing of whatever sort and a transparent judicial process. What the virtual analogs of these things will be remains to be seen, but they're the kind of things that will be needed before a virtual environment can truly become a robust and productive place. If the company isn't going to provide them, then it needs to step back even further and let residents hammer these things out on their own. At the moment, there isn't a world in which that's happening, not even Second Life.

Toward the end of Castronova's book he warns against letting virtual worlds become online dystopias, and exhorts the builders and residents of such places to insure that they are integrated into our physical lives in a way that preserves our dignity and fulfills the potential of cyberspace. That's good advice. I'd take it a step further, though, and remind both the residents and the creators of virtual worlds not to look for too much from such places. Virtual worlds should be an added attraction on top of what we get out of the real world. If the only reason you're in a virtual world is that you can't be bothered to make the real world a rewarding place, well, that's no fun at all.

Mark Wallace is a journalist and editor residing in Brooklyn, New York, and at He has written on gaming and other subjects for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Details and many other publications.

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