October 19, 2006 4:00 AM PDT
Shakespeare coming to a virtual world
But bridging the gap between them is exactly what Edward Castronova, an associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University and the leading expert on the economies of virtual worlds, is doing.
On Thursday, the MacArthur Foundation is expected to announce a $240,000 grant to Castronova and his team to build "Arden: The World of Shakespeare," a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO, built entirely around the plays of the Bard.
That means players can expect to trot around in 17th century regalia, buying ale in Elizabethan taverns and joining guilds aimed at toppling dukes and earls.
For Castronova, a longtime Shakespeare fan who once acted in a performance of "Richard III" and wrote a book called "Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games," bringing Shakespeare's universe to life is the chance of a lifetime. And, it's an opportunity to use an MMO as a serious social-science research tool.
"It's a culmination of a dream I had. I've been wanting to do this all my life, being a game developer," Castronova said. "We're going to be building a massively multiplayer world that we hope someday will be kind of like the commercial-grade ones with quests and monsters and so, but we have a somewhat different goal than that of the commercial sector...We'd like to allow our players to learn something valuable, so that's why it's about Shakespeare."
"Arden" will be an unusual entry to the growing field of MMOs, which is already dominated by games and virtual worlds like "World of Warcraft," "EverQuest," "Ultima Online." But while those games are published by for-profit corporations, "Arden" is entirely an academic project.
Castronova said "Arden" will launch--it's unclear when, as the game is still in the early design stage--built around the theme of "Richard III." That's because the play, set during the War of the Roses, offers historical context, as well as enough political intrigue, secret conniving, deal-making and war to delight any gamer, he said.
"It's a historical Shakespeare play, so that means it's really easy for us to take all the sort of fantasy stuff like knights in shining armor and peasants and woodworkers...and we can just really fit right into 'Richard III' right away."
But "Arden" has a more serious goal than just letting gamers cavort around in an Elizabethan playground.
Castronova likens "Arden" to a "petri dish" where he and other researchers can conduct ongoing social-science experiments. He said the idea is similar to a biologist running multiple versions of an experiment, each with slight variations in conditions, to see how those conditions affect the outcome.
"Now we have this technology for making little pocket societies and we can do different governments, different economies, different social norms in the different environments," he said, "and see how it affects the things we care about, like equality and justice and growth and efficiency."
To Julian Dibbell, a leading writer about virtual worlds and the author of "Play Money: Or how I quit my day job and made millions trading virtual loot," Castronova's notion of using "Arden" as a social science laboratory is interesting, if ambitious.
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