One of the most interesting developments in the world of video games in recent years has been the Massively Multiplayer Online genre, in which hundreds of thousands of players can interact in what's knows as a "persistent world." It becomes a kind of giant, virtual ant farm; an unwitting social experiment that allows people to create a new persona, ally themselves with friends and tribes, buy and sell property, etc. (It wasn't long after the release of the hugely popular Ultima Online that people were buying and selling virtual property -- for real money. These days it's tough to tell the real from the virtual on eBay: there are auctions going for virtual items of furniture, clothes, jewelry and even money (100 million gold pieces for just $145 -- now that's inflation!)
So it should be of little surprise that some sociologists have started using these virtual worlds as "petrie dishes" for social experiments. One such experiment is being funded by the MacArthur Foundation (famous for their "genius grants") -- to design a virtual world based on the writings of Shakespeare. Called Arden: World of Shakespeare, "players can expect to trot around in 17th century regalia, buying ale in Elizabethan taverns and joining guilds aimed at toppling dukes and earls." The idea, creator Ed Castronova says, is to "see how [life in this pocket society] affects the things we care about, like equality and justice and growth and efficiency."
Players expecting a high-minded history lesson, however, are in for a dorky surprise. Castronova describes the game play:
"If you collect the 'To be or not be' speech and then take it to a lore master or to a skilled bard, he can then apply the magic to your broad sword or you (could) utilize the magic in a battle situation to give you this massive (advantage). So there (will be) this intensive competition to get the best speeches of Shakespeare in your play book. You've got to know your Shakespeare, but...if you do, collect these texts and you can just playfully kick butt the way wizards do."
But will people who "know their Shakespeare" really be interested in "kicking butt like a wizard"? Considering that massively multiplayer games require massive investments of a player's time, a remorseful Arden player might quip: "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me!"
(Richard II, V, v.)