Happy people, those actively and successfully pursuing their goals, generally don’t ask “what’s the meaning of life?” or “why am I doing this and not that?” They’ve taken paths that suit them, are satisfied with their progress, and enjoy what they’re doing. Likewise, happy gamers generally don’t ask “why am I wasting my time with this game – why not be more productive?” I admit it: sometimes I get frustrated playing World of Warcraft, usually because I’m not as good in raids as I’d like. Nevertheless, the day after a disappointing performance, I’m back questing, crafting, exploring, and/or joining guildies in various activities, including an occasional raid. Why?
Game economist Edward Castronova, in a book I recently picked up, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (U of Chicago P, 2005, p. 68), frames the question this way: “why cyberspace – why not Earth”? Writing back when World of Warcraft, for example, was only half a million strong, he correctly predicts that virtual worlds will see tremendous growth in popularity as 3D-game technology improves. Real life, after all, is chock full of frustrations too. But why virtual worlds and not other ways of transcending the frustrations and tedium of daily life (of which there are many – meditation, TV, sports, novels, music, even sleep, etc.)? Drawing on the works of theorists and other thinkers, Castronova seeks to explain. I’ve cobbled together four of his reasons:
1. Playful Communication. From a professional perspective, virtual worlds (what he calls “synthetic worlds”) offer new ways of communicating. People can “mingle with one another in a world-like space” with less expense and better quality time than modes like telephone or video conferencing – and game spaces have the added advantage of mixing business with pleasure (68-69). Virtual worlds are “not simply gaming worlds” but also sites of “very real social dynamics” (71). For instance, I belong to an educator’s guild in World of Warcraft. The other night in guild chat, two people from different parts of the country – one playing an orc, let’s say, and another an elf – made plans to spend in-game time discussing their educational projects. This kind of professional interaction, a “mixing of play and not-play,” frequently happens in my guild.
2. Rebellion against the Joyless. In the way of cultural critique, Castronova notes that ordinary life offers too few opportunities for play. He reminds us that “play brings us joy … [and] motivates us to learn and train and grow” (69-70). As the saying goes, “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Thus a person may go to a virtual world “because it offers emotional joys that the Game of Life does not.” So, asks Castronova, “[I]f a person rejects a bad game in favor of a good one, who can blame her?” (76). Such a rejection, he says, is a political statement, even a rebellious act against cultural norms and institutions that dull the senses and stifle creativity (77). Similarly, a student who texts and does Facebook during class could be viewed as making a political statement.
3. Personal Empowerment. Thoreau famously wrote in Walden (1854), “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I venture to say this is as true today as it was then, especially in a culture in which one’s social standing and sense of well being are largely based on income and possessions acquisition. Yet the desire to make a positive difference in the world and be recognized as Somebody remains strong in most of us. Virtual worlds, as Castronova argues, provide opportunities to achieve, explore, create, communicate, socialize – to make a difference, to be Somebody – in ways that are not available or possible in ordinary life (73). He quotes David Rickey, the developer of EverQuest and other games, who said: “At the most fundamental level, these games are about empowerment and achievement, providing a never-ending sense of increasing importance and power to the player…. [They] provide a vacation from the pointlessness of life’s rat race, where no amount of effort can ensure you do more than tread water, because in the end, only a few people can be the big winners in the Game of Life” (75).
4. The Reality Factor. But how satisfying can experiences in virtual worlds actually be? How successful are they as substitutes for real life activities – for feeling connected and empowered? After all, a person’s avatar is a digital animation in a computer-generated world. Yet, notes Castronova, the avatar becomes “an extension of your body into a new space” (45), a character with your mind that does your bidding through the medium of a console or mouse and keyboard. Virtual worlds, says Castronova, “involve the stories of … avatars whose every behavior is motivated by the decision of an actual human mind…. [that] have things like Love, Property, Justice, Profit, War, and Exploration hard-wired into them” (48). The avatar’s experiences are one’s own. And as an avatar’s skills, achievements, and inventory increase, a player becomes more emotionally invested in its welfare. Moreover, in multiplayer games like World of Warcraft, especially in a guild, many “other people are in that other place to validate your feelings and achievements as genuine. For indeed, everyone there will treat the place as genuine – as a place, not a fantasy” (78).
For reasons similar to these four – as well as others Castronova has not focused on at this point in his book, like the beauty of the graphics, joy of animation, and depth of friendships – I keep coming back. Even so, my inner nag sometimes kicks in: Shouldn’t I be spending less time in Azeroth and more time making a difference on Earth?