Circulations In & Out of Virtual Worlds

Lesson 8: Circulations In & Out of Virtual Worlds
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Spencer Striker

Assignment Due: Write a reworking of the issue of “transfer” of learning in relation to MMO gaming based on these two articles:

• Malaby, T. M. (2006). Parlaying value: Capital in and beyond virtual worlds. Games & Culture, 1(2), 141-162.

• Leander, K. & Lovvorn, J. (2006). Literacy networks: Following the circulation of texts and identities in the schooling and online gaming of one youth. Cognition & Instruction. 24(3), 291-340.

Trust in Bytes

In June of 2008 Mr. and Mrs. Bungarz got married in a modest wedding in Canada, two years after they started dating in Second Life. Their synthetic world wedding was far larger and more ambitious than their real-life wedding. In the process of ‘transfer’ from the virtual realm to the real one, the young couple became subject to a different set of constraints, different rules of the world—perhaps not better or worse, just different. In 2009, Cory Doctorow launched his novel, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, in the world of Second Life. He created virtual copies, gave a virtual interview, and signed virtual books for fans. Doctorow is a proponent of Chris Anderson’s theory of ‘Free’—an economic theme of the new web in which giving away products and services for no direct monetary exchange facilitates the ability to make potentially more money via alternate, tertiary means. In this case, Doctorow transferred his real world social capital into cultural capital via his magnanimity and originality, transferable into prestige and indirectly transferrable into increased revenue from book sales and speaking engagements down the road—virtual or otherwise.

Every morning in the United States, there are people who wake up, eat their Cheerios, make their way to their office desk, fire up their computer, and kill people halfway around the world utilizing gaming technology, secure satellite imagery, and the latest predator drones. These remote operators of unmanned killing machines balance a fine line between the real and the virtual, transferring all their skills for detached manipulation of graphics on a screen—representing objects thousands of miles away—into real world death and destruction. After work, they drive home from the theatre of combat to their suburban homes and have dinner with their families.

People are already used to the idea of purchasing goods that we durably own but that are intangible—such as ringtones downloaded from the web or movies purchased from iTunes. In either case, we must trust that these invisible bytes for which we have exchanged our real world hard earned dough—money which is itself also a manifestation of social trust—are actually ours, irrevocably, and not subject to random seizure or deletion by Big Brother. The concept of transferring different types of value (or destruction) from the real world to the synthetic world and back again has numerous ongoing precedents and will likely accelerate and complicate in the future. Consider, for example, the coming rise of virtual sex, as prognosticated by futurist Ray Kurzweil. He believes that in twenty years people will enjoy synthetic sex better than real world sex because it will be enhanced, custom-designed, and complication-free, ie. devoid of unwanted pregnancy or the spread of infectious disease. The question of whether a virtual affair constitutes infidelity will no doubt be negotiated.

The Tao of the Don

As developed by Thomas Malaby, synthetic worlds—such as MMOs—are likely to proliferate in the coming years, becoming increasingly interchangeable with our real world via the exchange of market capital, social capital, and cultural capital. Regarding synthetic world economies, the question arises: with so little ‘overhead’ for commodities, how can market value become established? People will pay whatever they think something is worth. Value, therefore, arises organically out of human systems of agreed upon rates of exchange which in turn arise from how much people really want something and how hard it is to get, (determined by scarcity, artificial or otherwise). Consider great works of art. Is an original Van Gogh painting really worth tens of millions of dollars? Would you pay that much? Would I? But the fact is that somebody will pay that much, and therefore, that’s how much it’s worth. The value of exchange is in constant negotiation. Gold and diamonds, two of the real world’s most valuable commodities, have little intrinsic worth. Their value exists only in the imagination of the market economy, a system built on agreed upon rules, much like the World of Warcraft or Second Life.

“Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, consider this justice a gift on my daughter's wedding day,” said Don Corleone, the master of using social capital as a resource, leveraging reciprocity. When the Don does you a favor, he implicitly implies a moral obligation on your part. He creates a web of indebtedness, thereby elevating his position in the tribe. We see this same behavior going on in MMOs, whereby for example an elite player may present lots of value to less experienced players, offering weapons, gold, and hard earned information, but by accepting such help, n00bs sign a social contract whereby they find themselves entering into a form of moral debt.
So, what happens to your avatar when you die? We’ve already seen this phenomenon in Facebook, where the social page of the deceased is handled according to recently designed rules. The page can only be taken down by Facebook after verification by a family member or loved one. But the bereaved maintain the option to keep the page alive, transforming it into a memorial for the dead, one that transfers the social and cultural capital of the deceased between the worlds of the living and the dead—the real and the virtual.

Engaging a Sociotechnical Array

Leander and Lovvorn draw on the Actor Network Theory and the everyday literacy practices of one youth, Brian, to illustrate how literacy practices involve the circulation of diverse ‘actants’ postulating that space-time dimension of different literacy networks have direct relevance to understanding literacy engagement, agency, and identity. For Brian, the movements and positions of texts in activity demonstrate means of interpreting literacy related to engagement, agency, and identity. Movements and position of texts in circulation demonstrate greater text/object and text/body hybridity in Star Wars Galaxies vs. during his history notes routine, including more unpredictable rhythms of engagement and cycling speeds, enabling increased hybridization.

Brian interprets a far more complex and engaging sociotechnical array when playing the SWG and he has a stronger sense of how his work on the game results in his accumulation of market, cultural and social capital--he’s constantly advancing and leveling up. In history and English class, he cannot see the end in sight. The notion of ‘getting into to college and doing well in life’ is too vague and cosmic for the young man, too ethereal. He cannot see how his history projects can be exchanged for another kind of value or capital after they have been translated to a grade. His project just goes to the bottom of the pile to die. In the world of SWG, Brian produced and shared image files, read discussion boards, chatted with other players inside and outside of the virtual world and sent bug reports to the developers. Refining and implementing the robust tools of engagement of the virtual gaming world into the classroom could cause Brian to enjoy school more and get smarter faster. For example, students could be awarded points and level up, transferring a popular and motivating game element to the real world.