Saturday, September 12, 2009

on virtual worlds as petri dishes

avoiding the pitfalls of researching games

Yesterday I attended a talk by virtual worlds economist Edward Castronova.

I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped to be, given how much I love Castronova's writing--though my friends later told me not to judge Castronova too quickly. The talk was intended, they explained, as a presentation to a general audience, so Castronova perforce needed to simplify and streamline his big ideas.

Okay, fine, so I won't perform my typical Final Judgment on Ted Castronova. But I do want to take up one point that I found problematic, not only in the context of his talk but in the larger context of research into games and virtual worlds.

The talk was called "Virtual Worlds as Petri Dishes," and it was linked to his recent paper, "A Test of the Law of Demand in a Virtual World: Exploring the Petri Dish Approach to Social Science." Castronova's basic argument, in the paper and in the talk, was that virtual gaming environments offer a rich space for researching a wide range of social issues. Because Castronova is an economist, his focus is on how economic principles apply (or don't apply) in virtual worlds. In his talk, he argued that many people refuse to consider the possibility that human behavior in game spaces can offer us insight into human behavior in the "real" world--even though it's clear that at least certain key human traits carry over into virtual environments.

It's an interesting point, and one well worth exploring. But where Castronova went wrong yesterday was when he made this point, paraphrased below:

Game makers and policy makers are basically the same--they both need to create worlds that work for the people operating inside of them.

I shot my hand up.

"This point," I said, "seems fairly central to your research" (he nodded) "and it also seems fairly simplistic--especially since if you're a game maker and I don't like your game, I can just go play another one."

"Well," he answered (and remember that I'm paraphrasing in an effort to avoid misattribution--though I'm fairly certain I'm getting the points right), "the same thing is true in the real world--people can invest internationally, or they can relocate to another jurisdiction."

"Yeah, if (my voice was shaking; I was nervous) they have the money to do that--but there are tons of people who don't have the choice to just move to another country if they don't like the one they're living in."

"We say the same thing about Mexico, but lots of Mexicans who don't like where they're living leave every day."

"But lots don't," I said. "Lots (my voice was shaking; I was mad) stay right where they are."

Castronova ultimately ceded the point, kind of, but the larger issue isn't whether I got him to admit I was right. The larger issue is the sweeping claim that the choices people make in games are the same sorts of choices they can make in real life.

They're not. For one thing, people choose to play games, or not to play games, and they make choices about which kinds of games they want to play, and when, and for how long. We don't, by contrast, choose to be alive--and almost without exception, being alive means living in a society whose rules were created outside of your influence. You don't get to decide whether to play; you only get to decide how to react to the rules of the game. You can't choose not to play the game at all.

Sure, tons of people relocate, looking for a game whose rules suit them better. The wealthy can move to Switzerland or Casablanca or Canada; the most desperate poor can sneak across a border and live each day at risk of being sent home. But everybody in the middle is kinda stuck where they are, and if they're not happy with the game they're playing, they can try to game the system right back. Or they can try to crash the game, if only for a short while.

It may very well be, as Castronova argues, that human behavior in virtual worlds mirrors human behavior in the "real" world. But if we agree that virtual worlds can serve as research petri dishes, then we also need to, as Castronova himself said yesterday, "test the test tube." We can't ignore the fact that games are worlds that people enter by choice, often as a refuge from the compulsory "games" they play every day, regardless of their physical location. We can't ignore the difference in stakes. We can't ignore the differences in mindfulness, attention, and choice. We can't ignore the fact that gamemakers' primary goal is to make a world fun enough for people to want to stay, whereas policymakers' primary goal is to make a world livable enough for people to want to survive.

I agree with Castronova that research into games and virtual environments holds enormous promise. But as a believer in games research, I get anxious when people make sweeping proclamations that don't hold up under closer scrutiny. If we want our work to be taken as seriously as we believe it should be, then we have a responsibility to present it in serious ways. Games research is as complex, nuanced, and knotty as any other kind of social research, and we owe it to interested publics to explain it as exactly that.


Clement Chau said...

Thanks, Jenna, for this post. I live with an economist so I deal with this sort of arguments constantly. I have come to conclude that economists can never make any reasonable or sensible arguments about human behaviors because 1) they assume that people's action reflect genuine choices, and 2) economists are almost never poor. I refuse to listen to any economist who make more than a working class wage.

adamaig said...

I don't know that I agree with the objection unless you're holding games at an arms length. Phenomenologically it seems that Huizinga and Gadamer have argued successfully that in the experience of play, the play is all consuming in same sense as I take your attribution that life has more consequential constraints that few free themselves from to be concerned with. If you look at art, games, simulations from afar, rather than as they are experienced then I can understand your point. However, when you take the internal perspective to the experience--which opens the hermeneutic frontier to you--then the play *is* just as significant and complex as the other concerns you have in life. The choices are real, and in a well designed game, consequential to your experience. The fact that you can choose not to play a game feels like a red-herring to the issue at hand though, because I don't see that as directly connected to the species of experience (choice) being least not when understood from the philosophical positions I mentioned above (which is also consistent with the work on flow by Csikszentmihalyi, and much of what the ludologists have argued).

The assertion made by Clement just seems to ignore the reality that it is the individual making those choices, and while it may be a hybrid-Self or some other projection of one's identity taking credit for those decisions, it is *not* someone else ultimately making the choice, but the same Self (although we might argue about the 'me/I' there). I would argue that if economists make bad arguments its because of the partitioning of reality that they are claiming based on their tools, and what has been excluded that shouldn't, not because we are suddenly mind-controlled by aliens when we play games or make choices in a simulation.

Jenna McWilliams said...

Adam, thanks for your comments. I guess my take really is an arms-length one, as the conditions that lead somebody to play (or not play) a game seem fundamentally different than those that lead somebody to engage (or not engage) with the politics and policies of our culture. I don't disagree that once you're inside of the virtual world, it's as significant and complex as the "real" world; but gaming also seems layered over with another layer of choice that's not present outside of that space. To wit: if I don't like scary underwater games with creepy noises and weirdo crazy people, then I can play Pitfall. Or I can turn off the console and do something else with my time. But if I'm an uninsured member of the American working class and my child gets sick, I can't just move to Germany to get her the care she needs. I have to make do with whatever care the "game makers" decide is appropriate right here in America. What's the gaming term for keeping people playing by making them believe they can ultimately beat the game? In games, you eventually give up if it turns out the makers were wrong. In real life, we just keep believing we can win if we just believe hard enough in the Master Myths of our time.


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