New Column: The Potential Of Synthetic Worlds

Synthetic worlds – simulated spaces like World of Warcraft and Second Life – are proliferating rapidly. But are they more than just games? Their similarities to reality at an economic level is already evident. How might they develop and grow, and could they be used for greater purposes than mere entertainment?

Synthetic worlds are big business. And not just for their creators – there are a growing number of people and businesses making a living in the real world by working in simulated ones. The economies of MMORPGs are essentially analogous to the economies that operate in reality – their currencies and goods are traded for real money on internet auction sites. They have been host to factional wars, alliances, political protests, theft, scams and fraud. Players have met virtually, and gone on to develop their relationships in meatspace, sometimes to the extent of marriage. While at first glance they may seem to be merely a frivolous extension of the arcade games that proliferated in the 1980s, they are developing into something much more important.

The growth of online games and multi-user ‘synthetic worlds’ has been almost exponential, and shows no sign of slacking off. This is the continuation of a trend that started as soon as networked computers became a reality. History shows that humans have turned to computer simulations as arenas for social interaction almost at the very instant that such things became possible. There is evidently some deep-seated need in human nature that these environments can fulfil.

Why might this be the case? Perhaps it is a corollary to our increasingly fragmented society. Critics are often keen to label the popularity of computer games and similar entertainments as the root cause of the decay of the family, and of the local community. However, that rings a little untrue if you consider that it is precisely those sorts of interaction that users tend to replicate when using online worlds. Far from being antisocial pastimes, MMORPGs actually encourage cooperation and the building of mutually beneficial social relationships with others – if only because such relationships are essential to achieve the goals and tasks that the world requires of its players. Perhaps people migrate to virtual spaces to engage in social interactions that the modern world simply doesn’t supply any more.

While a certain dissatisfaction with reality may be a driving force behind the migration into virtual spaces, it is telling that humans choose to export almost every facet of normal social interaction with them as they go. They offer a chance to be someone else, certainly, but it is rare for players not to behave in fairly predictable human ways while inhabiting their alternate persona. There are certain expectations and restrictions of role, but the difference is that the player can choose their role – a facility that reality simply doesn’t offer. Synthetic worlds offer a chance to experiment with new roles and motivations, without the risks that accompany such changes in the real world.

The economic realities of these spaces are naturally attracting the interest of businesses. For example, Second Life is starting to sprout retail outlets representing real commercial interests from meatspace. While very much in their infancy, and acting largely as advertising space rather than genuine retail opportunities, it is to be assumed that it will not be long before real world businesses will be engaging in genuine commerce within these spaces. This may well be a serious tipping point, at which the potential of synthetic worlds will undergo a paradigm shift.

Perhaps the best analogy here is that of a new frontier – synthetic worlds as the new Wild West. As employment opportunities in meatspace wane, economics will surely drive more people to seek work in virtual worlds. For example, virtual shops will require user-controlled employee avatars, so as to prevent virtual shoplifting and vandalism. Once retail commerce gains a foothold, all the other business specialities will follow. There are already ample opportunities for virtual construction and architecture experts in Second Life, as well as designers and artist. It doesn’t take a huge leap of faith to imagine virtual accountants, real-estate agents, lawyers, or manual labourers – if the work needs doing, and someone has the cash to pay for it to be done, people will arrive to plug the gap. The meta-businesses will follow, as well; insurers, employment agencies, local governments and administrative organisations.

Where there is money, then there will of course be crime. Fraud, scams and theft are already features of online worlds, with the repercussions spilling out into the real world and providing bizarre new situations for the law to adapt to. At present, most virtual crimes are the work of lone operators and opportunists. But as the stakes become higher, they will be replaced by the equivalent of neighbourhood gangs, and they in turn will be ousted by organised syndicates – the virtual Mafia or Triads. Economics will create a class system analogous to that of reality. As above, so below, you might say.

And what sphere of human interaction would be complete without religion and politics? The long established ideologies will follow us into virtuality, and new variants will spring up as well. A recipe for conflict, perhaps – another human staple that runs at our heels wherever we choose to roam. But there will be nothing to prevent the existence of a multitude of synthetic worlds. Because they accrete around notions of community, each one will have its own character, laws and ideologies. A user or group who cannot find one to suit them may be able to start their own – there may be services that offer this opportunity, much as in the way that some companies currently offer a free blogging space to all comers.

The result might well be a literal multiverse – thousands of virtual worlds, all different and distinct and economically independent. The human urge to explore, to colonise, to carve out a niche for oneself, does and will express itself in virtual worlds – and the scarcer such opportunities become in reality, the more prevalent it will become in synthetic spaces. In the absence of other countries and planets to colonise, we are simply building them for ourselves.

But the unreality of these spaces offers a special opportunity – the opportunity to experiment with new systems of economics, politics and religion without physical repercussions. While it is fairly likely that we will repeat some of the same mistakes that we have made in the real world, it is also possible that we could use synthetic worlds as a sandbox for trying out new ways of dealing with the issues and problems that spring from the nature of human existence. To some extent, this is already occurring in informal microcosmic ways.

The American Revolution was once described as ‘the Great Experiment’; synthetic worlds will enable hundreds of such experiments to be run in parallel, without the risk of damage to the planet or the people who inhabit it. They already allow us to play at being different people – they could also allow us to play at being different civilisations and societies. We learn through play and social interaction in every moment of our lives. Maybe we can start to learn collaboratively.