If you ever get busted for playing solitaire, here’s the EverQuest defence.
Clive Thompson writes in The Walrus about Edward Castronova and his paper Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier.
Why the interest? When you write about the seventy-seventh richest ‘country’ in the world, and it doesn’t ‘exist’ … my curiosity gene clicks in.
Thompson describes Castronova’s eureka.
Quite a lot, if you believe the economist Edward Chamberlin. In 1948, Chamberlin admitted that all economists face a critical problem: they have no clean “laboratory” in which to study behaviour. “The social scientist . . . cannot observe the actual operation of a real model under controlled circumstances,” he wrote. “Economics is limited by the fact that resort cannot be had to the laboratory techniques of the natural sciences.” Instead, classical economics tries to predict economic behaviour by theorizing about a completely fair marketplace in which people are rational actors and all things are equal.
The problem with this — as plenty of left-wing critics have pointed out — is that all things aren’t equal. Some people are born into rich families, and blessed with great opportunities. Others are born into dirt-poor neighbourhoods where even the most brilliant mind coupled with hard work may not forge success. As a result, economists have warred for centuries over two diverging visions. Adam Smith argued that people inherently prefer a free market and the ability to rise above others; Karl Marx countered that capital was inherently unfair and those with power would abuse it. But no pristine world exists in which to test these theories — there is no country with a truly level playing field.
Except, possibly, for EverQuest, the world’s first truly egalitarian polity. Everyone begins the same way: with nothing. You enter with pathetic skills, no money, and only the clothes on your back. Wealth comes from working hard, honing your skills, and clever trading. It is a genuine meritocracy, which is precisely why players love the game, Castronova argues. “It undoes all the inequities in society. They’re wiped away. Sir Thomas More would have dreamt about that possibility, that kind of utopia,” he says.
Esoteric? Maybe. But what if games evolved to into computer simulations of business plans. Would that make your VC kvetch?