Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Surviving Bard Times

Some of you may have been following the Arden virtual Shakespeare initiative at Indiana University through some of its struggles, which I also talked about in a recent conference paper, in which I looked closely at questions of literary adaptation as a kind of explanatory device.

This May, project lead Edward Castronova released the following announcement, which seemed to herald good news about a project that many in the serious games community had dismissed as doomed after Castronova publicly admitted to making some "awful mistakes as a manager" on the project.

I'm pleased to announce that the project has come to fruition. With generous support from the MacArthur Foundation, we have created a fun game environment and used it to conduct a month-long experiment. Our experimental question (kept secret up to now) was: Are fantasy game players economically "normal"? Or on the contrary, when they make themselves into elves and dwarves and hobbits, do they stop taking economic decisions seriously? We created two virtual worlds, one an exact copy of the other, except that in the experimental world the price of a simple healing potion was twice as high as in the control. If people are taking prices seriously in this fantasy environment, they should buy fewer of the potions when potions are more expensive. At stake here is the entire idea of using virtual worlds as a Petri dish. If fantasy gamers behave in ways that violate our most basic assumptions of economic normalcy, then it makes no sense to use virtual worlds to study large-scale economic behavior. If, conversely, fantasy gamers seem to be normal economic agents, then perhaps some of the behavior in virtual worlds does indeed generalize to the real world. If so, then we can consider using virtual worlds to conduct controlled experiments at the macro scale of society, where our most pressing problems seem to live (natural resource management, intercultural mistrust, information security, disease). The initial findings of the Arden experiment will be released during the International Communications Association meetings in Montreal next weekend.

It's a fascinating document rhetorically, which is very different from his public mea culpa earlier in the year. The idea that a central research question would be "kept secret up to now" probably sounds strange to most faculty members familiar with the norms of granting agencies, but there is a triumphalism in tone that commonly comes with such press releases (or in this case an announcement on a mailing list), so in many ways it represents a much more conventional form of university rhetoric than some of Castronova's earlier electronic communications.

(Thanks to Peter Krapp for the text. Now that Peter isn't blogging, it's all to easy to cannibalize the material that he disseminates through other channels without giving him proper credit.)

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