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Games and the Internet: Fertile Ground for Cultural Change

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Online games are an economic and social force. There are games for education, games for science, games for health, and games for public policy, and the commercial digital game sector remains very strong. But can games change the world?

Yes. Cultural change is not magic. It proceeds according to known forces involving expectations and behavior. And these things can be affected by games. Games are structures in which people play – and play is believed by many scholars to be a critical driving force in social and cultural affairs.

When people play, they step formally into a world of make-believe, and in this make-believe world, anything is possible. Play is a collective fantasy in which people can become aware of new possibilities for the culture of the real world.

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Throughout most of human history, play has been an informal emergent property of human social behavior. People gather together and play games. With advanced civilization, however, the design of play opportunities has become a formal and conscious affair. While no one knows who designed chess, we do know who designed Monopoly, and when. Today, when people play, they are most often following rules conceived by someone in recent history. Those rules, as before, structure the players’ behavior, but now there is a consciousness behind the manipulation. If play is now designed, then designers — professional or amateur — are now manipulating behavior.

The Internet has not changed what games are, but it has made them vastly more effective at what they do. Games are no longer limited by time frame, geographic area, or number of players. Computer games now exist that cover many thousands of square miles, that continue for more than a decade, and that involve more than 10 million players at a time. And the commercial game industry will inevitably push outward on all these dimensions.

The Internet is also changing how games are produced. Although many games are still designed by professional game designers, new software products are emerging that allow anybody to make games for anyone else — just as nonprofessionals now make their own music videos and short films. This means lots of people from all over the world will be designing games. And when millions and millions of people make small things on the Internet, one of them eventually blows up and makes the difference.

Games are sites for cultural innovation — safe spaces in which people feel freer to experiment and express themselves in new ways. People who make Internet games therefore have the power to change our cultural world.

A game might create a small change that seeps into our daily lives, changing our expectations slowly and subtly, until one day, decades later, we suddenly realize that our culture has changed forever. A game could also present a new, wonderful world that solves many of our problems and helps us to live as people ought to live.

Who will make these wonderful new worlds? Perhaps game designers; perhaps elite creators in other fields. But we can expect ordinary people to come to the fore eventually. An isolated genius, probably already alive today, will design the game that changes our lives forever. As empowered by the Internet, games today are a demonstration infrastructure for that new “city on a hill.” Many such cities will be built, and some will directly point the way to our future.

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Edward Castronova is Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University and holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Castronova specializes in the study of games, technology, and society. Notable works include Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (University of Chicago Press, 2005), Exodus to the Virtual World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), Virtual Economies: Analysis and Design (with Vili Lehdonvirta, MIT Press, forthcoming), and Wildcat Currency: The Virtual Transformation of the Economy (Yale University Press, forthcoming).

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