In 1979, Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw, two undergraduates at the University of Essex, wrote a computer program called MUD: Multi-User Dungeon. If you logged into MUD, you shared the environment with other users. You gave yourself a name—perhaps “Edward”—and when you entered the command, “Move right,” the other users saw the result, “Edward moves right.” If you wrote, “Drop journal,” the machine would put your journal on the floor and everyone would read, “Edward puts his journal on the floor.” You could log in the next day and if nobody had taken the journal, you would read, “There is a journal sitting on the floor.” MUD was a virtual world: a space on a computer shared by many people, where objects persisted regardless of whether or not the people were logged in.
Today, virtual worlds are graphically rich, geographically massive, and heavily populated. In one world, Lord of the Rings Online, my wife and her girlfriends run around as elves and fight demons while chatting about sick kids and nutty husbands. Although the game is much more sophisticated than MUD, the essential features of the virtual world are the same: you use a character to navigate an immersive landscape that offers challenges in the form of monsters and quests. When you log off, the world remains, a canvas for collective storytelling.
There are obvious differences between a virtual world and our world. In a virtual world, there are dragons and elves and magic. But while the dragons are fantasy, the society is real. There’s not a single theory of human behavior violated by humans interacting virtually. People talk the same way, love the same way, shop the same way. Reputations, norms, prices, groups, and networks all work the same way as they do in the real world. The realism of these online societies has made them hugely popular. Gartner Research says that 80 percent of active Web users will, by 2012, have some sort of “avatar”—some sort of virtual character—in some sort of online world. That’s over 100 million people.
Contrary to the stereotype that fantasy gamers are all fat kids in their moms’ basements, most players are in their twenties and thirties. They’re not isolated; they connect with friends and family online every night. They’re not stupid; they develop sharp strategic and tactical acumen to win games in virtual worlds.
Why would people give up their real lives for fantasy lives? For the vast majority of people in today’s economy, life is pretty boring. In the real world, workers often perform tedious tasks that fail to give them a sense of meaning. Virtual worlds provide these people with tasks that have significance: the dragons must be killed, the villages must be saved.
One of the things that remains undisturbed in the transition from the real to the virtual world is the market. Money, we are told in Economics 101, has three characteristics: it is a medium of exchange, a unit of account, and a store of value. All three services have been needed in every virtual world built to date. By containing permanent items that characters can own and trade, all virtual worlds either have by design, or evolve, a currency. This currency is used for exchange, for accounting, and for saving up.
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