November 24, 2006

Play Money by Julian Dibbel

Category: Academic,Anthropology,Books/Articles,Tech,Virtual Worlds — Biella @ 5:06 pm

A few months ago I finished Play Money by Julian Dibbel and like his My Tiny Life before it, the writing style is simple yet sumptuous, or I guess just simply sumptuous.

Like the travel writings that pre-figured anthropological writing, Dibbel takes us to a “far-away” exotic land (but only a click or two away) that are populated by a motley crew of wizard (or is lizard)? slayers, gold-diggers, money-makers, and virtual-world-builders. For many, these MMOGsare no strange-lands but are becoming weaved firmly and intimately into the fabric of everyday life, whether as entertainment, sociality, and or for a cadre of folks, as a source of income generation.

I think the book has gotten enough coverage that I don’t need to rehearse its content in any detail but the basic story is that Julian embarks on a real world quest in the virtual land of quests to try to make enough money (to be specific make a little more than his monthly salary as a freelance writer) from trading and selling a slew of virtual objects and gold. In taking us along, he gives a compelling entry into the imaginative and morally complex world of these games. And better is that whether you know nothing about them or are a seasoned player, the book has much to offer.

One of the reasons I respect Julian Dibbel is because he takes his sweeeet time to churn out a book-length manuscript. In a day and age when there is so much pressure to release quick and often, especially when writing about anything in the so-called virtual plane of existence, he waited nearly 8 years from the publication of his last book on gaming, My Tiny Life before publishing on a considerably higher-tech phenomenon.

Following him on his most recent adventure, you learn that he threw himself into a variety of gaming environments persistently and consistently and did at least 3 years of research and writing (at one point in the book he confesses how excruciating writing for him, which is hard to believe as the words slip so nicely off the paper but whatever the extent of his writing angst is, he clearly spends a lot of care in crafting his sentences). And I am starting to think that if more people followed this ethic of long-term immersion, coupled with slow-brewed productive sparsity, we would get higher quality products (Yes, kinda like the Debian release cyclce).

Like any good ethnographer, he gives an intimate portrait of life in these worlds of copious play where various types of real world economies have mushroomed apace with new technological developments. That is, he gives us a taste of what it is like, as he cleverly puts it “to own unreality.” Couched within tales of gaming gone real world economic, are hearty reflections on the place of play in social and economic life, the close resemblance and conceptual affinity between computers and games (and not just computer games, and here he does a fantastic job at explaining the Turing Test), self-doubts about writing in general and in particular about this topic, commodity fetishism, and the changing nature of capitalism in a world of ever-greater abstractions. All of this makes for an enjoyable read that if used in the classroom (which like A Tiny Life, I am sure will become standard for courses on Virtual Worlds) allows you to bring in some good supplemental material whether Edward Castranova’s Synthetic Worlds, Greg Lastowka and Dan Hunter’s The Laws of Virtual Worlds and or older heavy-hitters like Max Weber and Karl Marx.

The only topic I think I would have liked to seen included is that of capitalist finance, because there are, I think, some real affinities, phenomenologically and conceptually, between finance capitalism and “gaming the virtual game.”

Otherwise some of my favorite sections were on hackers and the object of the computer, but of course, I am biased that way. So here I leave you with a tasty morsel of something that was sumptuous to ingest:

“It is this endlessly repeatable collusion of freedom and determinism-the warp and woof of fixed rules and free play, of running code and variable input—that sets both games and computers apart, together from the larger universe of information technologies they inhabit…. But only games share the universal machine’s game’s thoroughgoing commitment to the principle of recursion: the chained repetition of simple operations, each building on both the input of the moment and the outcomes of preceding steps. And only games, therefore, come close to capturing that precise mi of unpredictability and inevitability that makes the computer such a powerful simulator of our lived experience of the world.” p. 104

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