Art and Exploration, Deep Thoughts, Identity and Expression

Virtual Worlds: Top Five Books Cover Second Life, Avatars, and Cash

If you had to recommend 5 books on virtual worlds what would they be?

I was chatting with a professor – you know, the kind of person who uses parentheses when he’s talking, has a slender pair of reading glasses perched on the end of his nose and wears strangely patterned sweaters now that fall is here. Anyways, he was asking me how to learn more about virtual worlds and I made the mistake of rattling off a few URLS, but what he actually wanted was, um, a list of BOOKS – I guess he needed the filter of fellow eggheads or whatever rather than actually logging in, there was something unscientific about it or something.

Well, I spotted my chance to try to live up to a few of Hamlet’s Golden Rules of Blogging and so, stuffing as many keywords into the title post as I could, I was off on creating an arbitrarily numbered list, but wasn’t so sure about the Nutgraf or whatever, so I still have some blog lessons to learn.

Now, the selection criteria here is highly arbitrary. But my list is crafted as a set. And what I mean is the intention is that if you only ever read five things, hopefully these five books will give you a sense of virtual worlds, their potential, their issues, and you can go to sleep at night happy that you can pretty much chat them up at a cocktail party or whatever without every actually having to VISIT a virtual world, because in our age of shortened attention spans who has the time anyways.

In any case, I present my Top Five Books on Virtual Worlds, and am pleased to throw in a bonus section (see below).

Synthetic Worlds by Edward Castranova

I’d been hanging around in Second Life a bit and had this idea that something interesting was going on, but like so many newbs I was content to buy shoes and hang out and do whatever, rez a prim or two out of curiosity, but I frankly had no idea that SL blogs, for example, even existed, or that there was a whole ecosystem of Web sites and Flickr streams and Twitter streams or whatever.

In any case, I then ran across Dr. Ted’s famous adventures in synthetic worlds and I remember a feeling of, well….of wow. Because what Castranova managed to do was craft an introduction to virtual worlds (or synthetic as he preferred to call them) and to prove that they were worth paying attention to because, mostly, there was a lot of money trading hands in those strange places.

Castranova’s book was a landmark. It helped to define virtual worlds. It brought academic heft to the idea that these places matter. And it helped to craft an economic theory that exploded the myth that gold in Warcraft or Lindens in Second Life are somehow play currency – these are virtual currencies, he argued, but they have real value, as does the time that people spend in virtual worlds which were, he showed, sites of economic production and value.

Castranova also set out two important pillars of his own philosophy, and over time it was on these points that I’d personally diverge from Dr. Ted (actually, diverge isn’t quite the word, maybe it’s more like ‘violently disagree’ hehe) which were:

- Virtual worlds succeed because real life sucks
- Virtual worlds should be tweaked and manipulated in order to test theories to make real life less sucky.

But that doesn’t lessen the impact of his book. Because the first key to understanding virtual worlds is to understand that while many of them are games or include game elements, they’re more than play, and should be taken seriously.

The Making of Second Life by James Wagner Au

From Synthetic Worlds you can take one of two paths really: games, or Second Life. And there’s a lot of literature out there about MMOs – you know, Everquest and World of Warcraft and whatever, and there’s a lot to learn from how people act in game environments. But maybe it’s envy or something, because when I read something like Play Between Worlds, I can’t help thinking that here’s a prof who manages to get paid and published and earn tenure or who knows what because they like running around doing quests as an Elf. And I was amazed to find out how much you can learn about human nature by comparing how people react to different species or whatever, or how they collaborate on quests. And this is all good and sometimes heavy stuff, and I’ve played these games and enjoyed them, but don’t particularly like to be reminded about how boring farming is or how tightly structured guilds can be.

So that leaves Second Life. Which presents its own problems as a field of study because of how open-ended it all is. How chaotic at times. And how rich and varied the stories and experiences. And one person has been there since the beginning: always an observer, never a cynic (well, rarely), a sort of barometer of the Grid. And that’s Hamlet Au who has chronicled Second Life on New World Notes and written THE definitive history.

New World Notes is about the birth of an open, user-generated virtual world. And it shows that birth through the stories of its residents, and the often unintentional influence of its owner, Linden Lab, who often comes across as slightly hapless and klutzy, and, in the end, vaguely kooky when Philip Rosedale confesses that he sees Second Life as his way to achieve immortality (yup, he’s gonna load his brain into SL, I guess… think you’ve seen LAG? Just wait).

There’s no better way to understand where SL came from than by reading this book. Now, in all deference to Hamlet, he takes a turn towards the end of the book into recommendations and thoughts on how SL can support business stuff and brands and all that through a kind of road map, which isn’t the books strong suit, but his core concepts have enduring value as a prism through which to view virtual worlds: things like Mirrored Flourishing and whatnot. But what makes the book shine are its stories – lovingly collected and beautifully, well, rendered (pre-Windlight mind you hehe).

The State of Play: Law, Games and Virtual Worlds

OK, so, law? Law is boring. Law is obscure. But law in this case is less about, well, lawyers, and more about philosophy, intent, and the idea that virtual worlds are, perhaps, unique, and that the legal issues pertaining to them complex, vague, and undecided.

This book is appealing because the editors have collected a definitive group of articles that are the lines in the sand, really, on how issues related to virtual world policy, avatar rights, content protection, terms of service, and the tension between users and platform owners are discussed.

The collection includes Raph Koster’s seminal article “Declaring the Rights of Players” – which has since become the basis for the terms of service for Metaplace. It also includes Yochai Benkler’s argument that virtual world goods are, well, virtual, in “There is No Spoon” which argues that we’re talking about software here, not hard goods, and that we need to be careful when we talk about virtual “goods” because:

“The question of “who should own the spoon?” should be understood as a question about what we want the social relations using the platform to be like. The question requires that we define a range of social relations that we believe the platform will enable, and a normative belief about how those relations should go.”

In other words, lawyers need to think about virtual worlds and property not like they think about “property” but need to look beyond that and realize that what we’re really talking about here are worlds that operate under their own constructed social norms.

This book not only gives a sense of what the legal issues are surrounding virtual worlds, but lays out the arguments for how issues of identity, content, jurisdiction, and platform and avatar rights are emerging fields in their own rights that exist both within current law, and within the emerging properties that are unique to these environments.

Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff

So where were we? OK, we’ve learned that virtual worlds are important and people spend time there and make money and we need to pay attention. We learned about how Second Life evolved through the stories of its Residents, and in so doing, we saw that the future is both stranger and more meaningful than we imagined. And we’ve picked up the threads of the larger policy and philosophical questions that drive virtual worlds.

So now it’s time to understand, well, how we FEEL in virtual worlds. Or at least how we act, and how virtual worlds are WORLDS – they have their own cultures, their own norms, their own tools, and as such are as deserving of ethnographic studies as, say, Samoa when Margaret Mead showed up.

Boellstorff’s book is astonishing. Even for someone who’s spent time in Second Life, it opened my eyes on things as simple as the term “AFK” and showed how IMs, chat, and the subtle shadings of AFK actually have a deeper meaning for Second Life as a culture.

Boellstorff also makes the case that the counterpoint to virtual worlds is not the real world, but the actual. And that this virtuality includes two important things: it is virtual (of course, but he explores this with incredible insight and finesse) meaning that you are never QUITE there, and that this is incredibly important; and two, it is recursive, because as he says it is “techne within techne”.

On this latter point I think he’s only made the first rough outline of his case that there’s something profound about the idea that this sociality, mediated by technology, is developed within technology. And that this recursiveness, if you want to call it that, may be the source of a shattering insight into the evolution of our culture. I’m not entirely sure he’s closed the deal on this argument.

Having said that, Tom’s book is a monumental work. It establishes a de facto standard for academia upon which future work will refer, much as Castranova did for the economics of virtual worlds.

Winnie the Pooh

Don’t laugh. This is an important one. Because to me, Second Life is a Story Box. As a site for creativity virtual worlds are being built prim by prim in, perhaps, the largest collaborative work of imagination ever made.

Which is a return to the world of dreaming. To those worlds we used to enter, when we were kids, and the lights were low, or we were reading books under the covers by flashlight.

OK, I promised a bonus section so here goes.

Best Example of Taking Things Too Far
Exodus to the Virtual World by Edward Castranova
Prokofy calls this a pamphlet. I call it a job application. Either way, it’s condescending and scary. It takes Castranova’s premise (noted above) and extends it and basically concludes that economists like himself should have more involvement in manipulating virtual worlds so that human nature can be studied. And that having studied human nature, governments and business can be programmed like games in order to manipulate citizens and employees. AVOID.

Best Example of a Book in Severe Need of a Decent Editor
Digital Ego by Jacob Van Kokswijk

This wandering, obscure, footnote-packed book (mind you, there are a fair number of footnotes that link to Wikipedia, which tells you, um, he knows what Wikipedia is I guess) packs in Plato, Einstein, DC Comics and every other tenuous reference to virtual worlds you can imagine. In severe need of an edit (not unlike myself, pot and kettle maybe, but it takes one to know one). This book should be chopped by 2/3rds and turned into a blog instead, since it’s a scant 155 odd pages.

Mind you, if you have the patience, there’s some good stuff buried here.

Best Pictures

I, Avatar by Mark Stephen Meadows

Actually, this is more than pictures. It’s a beautifully crafted book on the personal experience of a virtual world, and touches on major issues of identity and representation. Not so much academic as, well, true. The kind of book that would be written by an “artist in residence” which, I guess, is what Mark was: a resident who was an artist and wrote about the consequences and experience of having a Second Life.


But the best source of stories of all is you. So when you’re done with your homework, come on in, I’d like to show you something, and listen, and make some new stories together.

Although – if you have a book or two you want to recommend I always need something for the bus ride to work.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.