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Mmorpg's: True Reality? Yeah. Fake Reality? Yeah, That Too

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MMORPG's: True Reality? Yeah. Fake Reality? Yeah, that too

Religion is a system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

- Definition of Religion by Clifford Geertz


There seems to be a progressive pattern of advancing size and complexity in the video gaming industry. The linear elements of play that governed the laws and environmental construct of Pac-Man and Donkey Kong have been replaced by the massive and complex metropolises of Grand Theft Auto's Liberty City and the various worlds of Everquest and Warcraft. Entire economies, societies, and cultures are created and sustained through the interaction of the 70 million or so users. Nowhere else is the sheer breadth and intricacy of contemporary videogames better established than in the world of the genre MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game).

In most MMORPG's, players are not limited to the confines of the typical warrior, sorcerer, and archer social categories, but are also able to become musicians, politicians, merchants, priests, doctors, architects, jewelers, gamblers, and even sous chefs (Castronova, 108). There are active real-time economies, which without management, border on the precipices of inflation and monopolization. Much of the academic literature that has been published and is still being published rests on the correlation between aggression and the seemingly inherent violent nature of video games. After all, video games have long been based on the premise that the player "wins" by achieving a given set of goals, usually through violent means. The narrative styles of such games are usually composed of a simple beginning-middle-end story structure. However, in the world of MMORPG's, everything is exponentially bigger. There is not only room for combat and challenges, but also a forum for relationships, academic topics, and like-minded individuals who gather under the banner of specific philosophies (i.e., an Ayn Rand influenced space cartel in the Venal space system, TTI).

The liminal zone extant within these synthetic worlds renders any borders of categorization indefinite. The rich social milieu, the complex relationships and social structures, the very "real" attitudes of these avatars that with elfin ears and dwarven muscles hide an all-too human mind point to an existence where the players are caught between two different and autonomous realities and identities. Indeed, as Geertz has postulated, culture not only socializes and inculcates in people values, but it also works the other way around in a circular flow, wherein the ingenuity of the human mind also changes the macroscopic cultural values of his/her society. Thus, we see symbolic anthropology in work here, as the two different identities of players go past the liminal zone of the two realities, implementing and interpreting symbols from the other worlds. In a much more explicit example of the converging relations between the two identities and worlds, we see that much of the intellectual property laws being created are made to satisfy the growing number of legal problems involved in the sale of virtual real estate, weapons, and avatars. In China and other Asian nations, there are factories where workers play this MMORPG in order to procure both virtual currency and rare items for change and sale on eBay. Despite the fantasy environment and its corporate start as just a video game, I will attempt to convince in this rather short paper that synthetic worlds offer a rich culture and social tapestry with symbols, deep play, ritual, competition, drama, love, and all those other shards of the human spirit we see as existing only within the "real world," and question precisely the nature of what is "real" through the critical lens of Descartes, the skeptic-philosopher of all reality.

Background Info.

"A synthetic world is a computer-generated physical space, represented graphically in three dimensions that can be experienced by many peoples (millions now) at once with real time features" (Castronova, 22). Typical users spend 20-30 hours per week inside the fantasy world. Power users spend every available moment. Some 20 percent of users in a recent survey claimed that their fantasy world was their "real" place of residence; the Earth was just a place you go to get food and sleep. In 2003, DFC intelligence counted 73 million online gamers worldwide in 2003, 27 million of them being defined as "hard-core" gamers (Castronova, 55). The average MMORPG player is 24-25, and has an education of varying levels. The stereotypical view of the momma's boy living in his parent's basement is no longer valid (Griffiths). 20% of Everquest players in a survey stated that they felt that Norrath (world in Everquest) was their true home, and if possible, would NEVER leave, while another 20% admitted that they would quit school/job if Norrath produced enough money for their well-being (Castronova, 29). Both of these groups spend more than 4 hours daily and more than 24 hours weekly in the world of Norrath. Under the assumption that approximately 7 hours of sleep is had, nearly a quarter of the week is devoted to being in Norrath, a synthetic world by these two groups.

The workings and activities of synthetic realities have great consequences in the real world as well. The commerce flow generated by people buying and selling virtual money and other virtual items amounts to at least 100 million dollars globally. In Asia, people who have lost virtual items because of game-server insecurities and hacks have called police and filed lawsuits. The police have made arrests; courts have heard cases; and plaintiffs have won. "The collective volume of annual trade in synthetic worlds is, at this writing, almost certainly above 1 billion dollars. Indeed, GDP per capita inside synthetic worlds is far higher than in the real world's poorer economies, such as those of India or China" (Castronova, 13). The GNP of Norrath, a continent in the game, Everquest, is 4 times higher than China's or India's (Yee).

Project Entropia, an upcoming MMORPG is taking the next step... to actually utilize the dollar as the currency being used within the virtual game... At this point, a piece of virtual real estate has been sold for 100,000 dollars. (



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