Edward Castronova

Edward Castronova, Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University, is a founder of scholarly online game studies and an expert on the societies of virtual worlds. Among his academic publications on these topics are two books: Synthetic Worlds (University of Chicago Press, 2005) and Exodus to the Virtual World (Palgrave, 2007). Professor Castronova teaches graduate and undergraduate courses on the design of games, the game industry, and the management of virtual societies. Outside his academic work, Professor Castronova makes regular appearances in mainstream media (60 Minutes, the New York Times, and The Economist), gives keynotes at major conferences (Austin Game Conference, Digital Games Research Association Conference, Interactive Software Federation of Europe), and consults for business (McKinsey, Vivendi, Forrester). In the longer run, Professor Castronova aims to develop online games for studying human society.

In 2001 Castronova, a self-proclaimed “failed economist,” decided to devote his life to playing video games. He started playing EverQuest, an online role-playing game with 400,000 players,  and noticed that it had an economy in it. As a joke, he decided to “analyze” this economy as if it were real. Carefully (if in full irony) collecting statistics from the EverQuest economy, Castronova found to his astonishment that it was worth several hundred million dollars a year in terms of gross production value. He set the joke aside and started studying online economies for real.

Today Castronova is strongly motivated by Tolkien’s idea (which resulted in CS Lewis’ conversion to Christianity at age 33) that myths are used to express true things that are inexpressible by other means. If this idea is true, then every moment spent in a fantasy world is a moment spent trying to get at those ineffable truths. It is the opposite of a waste of time; it is perhaps the best possible use of time. Even if one is not prepared to go that far, one might be willing to accept that gaming and fantasy are naturally attractive, and therefore likely to consume ever more human time. Technology will enable this turn to fantasy, and the effects on the outside world will be profound. When millions of people leave a society, the society must change. Some changes of this sort are certainly headed our way.

What does the Wisdom of Play mean to you?

Lately I’ve been mulling the possibility of overthinking, that is, thinking too much about something; in D&D terms, relying on Intelligence instead of Wisdom. I’ve had plenty of students who turn an easy test into a hard one by looking too deeply into a question. Therapists will tell you that thinking a great deal is a sign of problems. Indecisiveness is caused by anxiety but also leads to more anxiety. They tell you to stop the cycle of rumination. Media psychologists (like Annie Lang) say that perception and cognition cannot be separated from emotion – what we want to see, and what we want to conclude, has a large effect on what we do see, and what we do conclude. Perhaps the longer we think, the more likely we are to dredge up support for the conclusion that our heart desires, rather than the one we knew was right from the first. Evolutionary psychologists (like Peter Todd) tell us that people function well using heuristics – simple rules that can be applied in lots of situations. Game scholars (like Travis Ross) find heuristics in games – when designers make an engaging game, they do so using puzzles whose solutions implicitly assume the use of heuristics rather than full-bore calculation. If all this is sensible, then is it possible that we can truly be too bright for our britches? If so, how can we keep the tendency to overthink in check? One way would be to avoid spending too much mental time the realm of pure speculation. Come up with a new idea, yes, but then go test it out. Play with it. In this context, Wisdom of Play means, “To be a business leader, play with your ideas and strategies in safe environments. Don’t think too much, rather, test.” But this presupposes that you know how to create useful test environments, useful gamefields on which your ideas can evolve without causing harm. This means that leadership in the 21st century requires a strong grasp of the modalities and protocols of play. Leaders need to be good gamers. Are they? Does a lifestyle of watching football and playing golf sufficiently exercise the muscles of strategy and game design?

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