Edward Castronova, of Indiana University and author of Exodus to the Virtual World, talks about his provocative thesis that a growing number of people around the world will be spending more and more time playing multiplayer games in virtual reality both as a form of escape and as a search for meaning. He talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about how this trend might affect government, religion, and our happiness.I'm not an expert on multiplayer online games, because I literally don't play any of them: my only experience with online gaming of any sort is the odd blast of Dominate Game with the guys in my office and long-running PBEM games of Steel Panthers: World at War with 50-something fellow military history freaks in Texas and Virginia. So my comments ought to be taken in that light. It also needs to be said that Castronova was being interviewed here in 2008, and things have obviously moved on since then: they talk quite a bit about Second Life, which seems to have faded away (to my knowledge anyway), and they cite World of Warcraft dollars-for-gold-piece auctions as a $1 billion dollar per year concern, where I suspect today they are even bigger than that.
The most interesting issue they raise is the philosophical one: what are the consequences for society that a sizeable minority of people actually seem to prefer living in a virtual world than to the real one? And what does it say for society? It being Econtalk, which is probably the most cerebral podcast on the internet, they manage to steer clear of stupid pat answers like "blah, capitalism destroys the soul, people want to escape, blah". Instead they offer a number of different thoughts, foremost among them that modern society has to a large extent tried to shed myth, and in doing so it has left a core human need unsatisfied: history and anthropology suggest that myth is something that fulfils some sort of genuinely human requirement. They make the observation that World of Warcraft is like an exercise in myth-making which seems to fill this hole.
In any case, it got me thinking about table top RPGs. Are they part of the same process, the so-called "exodus to virtual worlds"?
It's a shame table top RPGs are so niche, because I think they can be productively analysed in relation to issues like this. RPGs are sort of like Second Life and World of Warcraft, because they involve the creation of a fantasy world, they are to a certain extent escapist, they resemble Nozick's Experience Machine to some degree though don't map perfectly. And yet at the same time they are different - because they are social in the "true" sense (you play them face to face) and very rooted in the real world of dice, pens, paper and, perhaps crucially, the written word.
I don't have any particular thoughts on the matter, though this notion of myth-making struck a chord with me. What myths we do have in the modern world - essentially, books, films, comics, etc. - are all passively partaken in. So although I'm prepared to buy the argument that nowadays films fulfil something of the function that mythology did, it isn't really correct to talk about watching films as being involved in myth making because nothing is being made by the audience. This contrasts with religious myth in particular, because religious myths involve an active response - they are supposed to be linked in some way to our behaviour. There is something more of that in table top RPGs: active engagement with issues of right and wrong, good and evil, and so on, and also just acting with some kind of in-game meaning as opposed to being an unengaged observer.