Will this be the Christmas when adults get better toys than their kids? We could stuff mum or dad's 2005 stocking with a video iPod, a music-playing mobile phone and a Playstation Portable, and still have room (if barely any cash) left for chocs and socks. Yet the primary weapon of mass distraction on offer this season is Microsoft's new X-Box 360. Plug it into the domestic flat-screen and the modern wired-up family will be able to smash racing cars, thrash aliens and win ancient wars, nestling into their couch in blissful, thumb-flicking unity.
With its broadband connection, and through a monthly subscription, the 360 can enable online gaming with others across the planet. One world of global players, united through velocity, xenophobia and militarism. O happy prospect! Unlike the solipsism of more personalised digital toys, online gaming is explicitly a social realm.
As Synthetic Worlds, Edward Castronova's quirky though ground-breaking study of online gaming, shows, both the numbers participating (20 million and rising) and the issues explored - the fundamentals of economy, politics, community, identity - make this a genuinely interesting and important phenomenon. However, Jack Railton's history of computer games makes abundantly clear that you have to get past the shopworn SF/fantasy tropes - elvish antics, space operatics and battling warriors - that populate "synthetic worlds". Once you do, you find you're in a veritable social laboratory - though sometimes it seems more relevant to the 16th century than the 21st.
Castronova, a political economist from Indiana University, tells the story of a game called Ultima Online, whose designers decided to relax some of their controls on the behaviour of players. Instead of just being allowed to engage monsters in combat, they were allowed to engage each other. Organised groups of players then "devoted themselves to the study of how to track down and kill innocents, just for kicks".
Life in Ultima Online became nasty, brutish and short: exactly the conditions that Hobbes used "to describe life in the absence of government", and evidence that "anarchy reigns in synthetic worlds". The controls were returned, and the game was saved from auto-genocide.
The titles of the most successful games - Lineage, World of Warcraft, Everquest, Dark Age of Camelot - reveal a lot about these "massively multiplayer online role-playing games". Their avid users, mostly adult males in Asia and America, clearly want to escape from real life into a permanent Middle-Earth, where they willingly allow their violent marauding and adventuring to be limited by the "deep magic" of the game designers' distant authority.
Castronova quotes JRR Tolkien's 1939 essay on fairy stories, where the magus asks, "why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home?" The prison - a culture, says Castronova, "that leaves people feeling isolated, aimless and bored" - has a new exit strategy, via mouse and screen.
The fact that none of these synthetic worlds has anything like a democratic or consultative process for their millions of users is surely a more worrying phenomenon than Castronova makes out. For these digital escapees, "home" is a stygian, mist-wreathed throwback, where modernity never happened, and seemingly isn't welcome.
Yet these games are not entirely a medieval refuge from modern living. Castronova became fascinated by the economic activity within these worlds: the most skilled players get rewarded with gold, and can then purchase goods or trade with others.
Things got really fascinating when players started to go to external markets like eBay, and sell earned game-gold for real dollars to other players, who could use it to boost their power without spending tedious hours felling orcs. The New York Times last week reported the inevitable: US shysters are setting up cyber-cafes full of "gold farmers" in China, whose job is to rack up reward points to sell to wealthy (and lazy) game players.
Online games, at least in the commercial sector, are clearly no place for cyber-idealists. Castronova makes a strong case that universities are the only institutions capable of creating digital environments that aren't as stiflingly feudalistic as the market leaders. He imagines a future where students will use simulations to test out new ideas about societies, cultures and economies. However, he tediously genuflects, as so many American game experts do, to the imperatives of the US military, advocating online games as a means of anticipating "people of bad intent".
It's difficult to shrug off the suspicion that computer-game culture is intrinsically determined by contest, conquest and battle. Certainly compared to Hollywood, the music biz or HBO, the military emphasis is overt. Railton's confusingly organised and laddishly written history of games from the Seventies to the Nineties - before it all went "overground" with Playstation - is for hard-core gamers only, bearing the genre's usual carefree attitude to death-dealing and enemy-zapping.
Railton does capture the some of the charm of early computer gaming: the hypnotic descent of Tetris blocks, the sheer idiocy of titles like Way of the Exploding Fist. But compared to a recent US history of computer games, Chaplin and Ruby's Smart Bomb, Cool Computer Games reveals how uncool and unreflective gamers can be.
Digital thinkers often seem strangely disconnected from human empathies. Throughout his book, Castronova seems haunted by the idea of our imminent "exodus" from real life. In online games, he plaintively claims, "it is more possible, now, for every person to have at least a few moments of feeling truly accomplished, befriended and loved". The passage where he fondly imagines his isolated Sicilian grandmother communing with her dispersed family through virtual-reality glasses is startling.
As the technology critic Neil Postman used to rasp: what exactly is the problem to which this technology is the solution? Synthetic worlds may well be upon us, and we should heed Castronova's call for more research into their effects and design. But forgive even this cyber-enthusiast for wondering whether authentic worlds - where you can actually, not virtually, hug your granny - are just as worthy of our care and attention.
Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' is published in Pan paperbackReuse content