Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Humanities, Then and Now

Volume XXIX Number 1
Fall 2006

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Edward Castronova
Edward Castronova
Photo courtesy Indiana University

artist's drawing
The main tavern in the synthetic world of Arden, as drawn by artist and IU graduate student Michael V. Green
Image courtesy Michael V. Green

All the (Synthetic) World's a Stage

Come, shelter yourself in the Boarshead Tavern. Let Mistress Quickly serve you a pint, and hoist your glass with Sir Falstaff. As you leave the tavern, take in the sights of Elizabethan England--the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey, perhaps. Shylock, Lear, Rosalind, or Hamlet may happen by. Later, you can all make your way to the Globe Theatre.

Welcome to Arden, the all-virtual world of William Shakespeare.

Actually, the virtual Arden doesn't exist yet, but a recent $240,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is spurring its development. Arden is the brainchild of Edward Castronova, an economist and associate professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington. Author of Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Castronova is an expert on the economies created in and by massive multiplayer online games (or "synthetic worlds") such as World of Warcraft. Recently, he's also launched the Synthetic Worlds Initiative (SWI), a research center at IU Bloomington aimed at deploying online games for serious purposes. When the virtual Arden is complete, Castronova says, it--and, eventually, other "worlds" like it--will offer unparalleled educational and research tools.

As a teaching tool, the immersive, interactive experience of online worlds is far more effective than "sitting students in chairs and talking to them," says Castronova. "If you immerse people in a constructed space, they will pick things up without you telling them anything." For example, in the online Arden world, Castronova explains, the greatest treasure will be "scraps" of Shakespearean text scattered about--as players gather pieces of text in the proper sequence to form a monologue or scene, they will accumulate power. "And bit by bit, they will learn," he says. "They will find to, be, or, not, to, be, etc., put those in the right order, and when they're done, they've memorized and learned without even trying."

Students affiliated with the SWI (www.swi.indiana.edu) will also be trained to create their own virtual worlds. Castronova calls the design and creation of synthetic worlds "the transformative technology of the 21st century," and as SWI grows, he says,"IU will be the only university in the world where students can learn to build one of these worlds." The institute draws strength from dozens of IU professors and students in varied disciplines as well as from the university's technology infrastructure. "We have experts in technology, history, Shakespeare, economics. We have supercomputers and Internet2," Castronova says. "What we don't have is experts in game design, and that's what we're trying to create."

But it's the research potential of synthetic worlds that really excites Castronova. He likens online worlds to social science Petri dishes or, perhaps, supercolliders--in other words, ideal environments for conducting large-scale experiments in human social behavior.

"Social scientists never get the opportunity to test theories at the level of a whole society," he says. But a synthetic world, he explains, is a designed world completely under the control of its designer. In essence, he says, synthetic worlds are "controlled environments for studying the evolution of macro-level forces of government, law, economics, sociality, learning, and culture." As different variables (say, political structures or available resources) are manipulated, researchers can observe cause and effect on an unprecedented scale. For example, a researcher could increase the virtual world's money supply behind the scenes, then observe the resulting inflation and the impact of different policies.

"Communism is a theory about the whole economy," Castronova points out. "Wouldn't it have been interesting if Marx had had a whole society to test it out on? Maybe he would have changed his mind."

So why an experimental virtual world based on Shakespeare?

For one thing, Shakespeare is "really fun," says Castronova. "He has everything that Lord of the Rings has--ghosts, witches, monsters, good, evil, battles, combat." But more than that, he says, Shakespeare "invented the virtual." Castronova points to false identities, masquerades, and re-created selves in plays such as Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, As You Like It (the virtual Arden is named after the Forest of Arden in this play, where characters assume new personas), and The Tempest. Quoting classic lines from The Tempest--" These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits and are melted into air . . ./We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep"--Castronova says the concept of the virtual world is "quintessentially Shakespearean."

He admits a more personal affection for the Bard as well. Castronova the economist has been "an actor of Shakespeare, in a very bad way," he says. In fact, it was a Shakespearean role that opened Castronova's eyes to the role-playing power of avatars, as the 3D characters in synthetic worlds are known. A few years ago, he took a part in A Midsummer Night's Dream, to be performed during a summer Renaissance fair in California. "So there was the real me," he says, "walking into a Renaissance fair to become a Shakespearean actor who then acts in A Midsummer Night's Dream, and then inside of that play, acts in Pyramus and Thisbe (the play-within-a-play in Act 5). That's when the business of avatars really hit me."

Today, Castronova's role-playing is entirely virtual--you may encounter him as a female in World of Warcraft, for instance. Much as he enjoys massive online games, however, he's well aware of the dire, even deadly, effects attributed to them, from addiction to abandonment to financial ruin, and even suicide. That's why he believes the public domain--particularly public research universities such as IU--must be involved in not only studying synthetic worlds but actually building them, to learn how they work and how to put them to good use.

"Technology is never the enemy; humanity is the enemy," he says. "That's why it is tremendously important to get universities involved quickly in making these worlds. We have no incentive to build a world that is addictive and sucks someone in for 80 hours a week, but a private, for-profit enterprise does. When universities make virtual worlds, we will have some assurance that those worlds serve humanity."

Castronova emphasizes that research using synthetic worlds must be done fairly and humanely, with full disclosure and compliance with codes of research ethics. That means Arden's players will be told that their game environment may be manipulated. To players who may be put off by the notion that the game is also serious social science, Castronova says not to worry, Arden will be big fun.

"With this kind of experimental design, the player's experience is not going to be any different than anyone else who plays one of the big games. If players notice, then we're not doing it right," he says.

In other words, when it comes to social science and synthetic worlds, play's the thing.

--L.B.