The Economics of Vested Meaning

I just read Castranova’s treatise on the Economics of Virtual Worlds.

As academic and professional disciplines, Game Design and Economics have shared something in common for quite a while. In economics, a transaction between two parties is predicated on what I’ve come to label “The WIIFM Rule.” WIIFM, of course, being an acronym for “What’s In It For Me.” It’s in the forethought of both parties, and, if both aren’t satisfactorily answered, the transaction doesn’t go through. Ludology follows a similar path- at every decision a player makes, from buying the game in the first place, to opening that door, to taking on that side-quest, the player first asks “What’s In It For Me.” It’s the job of the game designer to have an answer at the ready.

Tied into this is the idea of invested meaning. We want to buy something because we’ve attached value to it. We want to run this instance because the potential outcome holds value to us. We determine that one thing is worth more to us than a resource we currently hold- in market economics, it’s money; and in games and virtual worlds, it’s time.

Either system works because people opt-in. The economy grinds on because we do determine things are valuable and worth having and worth giving up something else. Games and virtual worlds are successful because the experiences they offer are well worth the invested time. We choose- enthusiastically, even- to invest some part of our personal satisfaction on these artificial constructs.

As an aside, this reminds me- in a partly ironic, partly frightening way- of The Matrix Trilogy. The Redpills- the people who refused to accept the programming- constituted only 1% of the total population. The other 99% knew, even if only subconsciously, that the Matrix wasn’t real. And they chose to plug in anyway. If you keep this in mind when you consider the rate at which VW’s are growing- in number, in GDP for the world they describe, in complex social behavior that emerges- one can’t help but give pause.

Questions:

1. Like VWs, Social Networking sites are drawing more and more of our time-capital. Facebook may not have the same kind of immersive first-person-view interface that a game or a VW has, but it’s still rather successful in not only capturing users’ time, but capitalizing on it to. Would Facebook, Myspace, Livejournal, et al be even more successful if they became Virtual Worlds unto themselves?

2. With VW’s, MMO’s, etc. so obviously The Next Big Thing, what of “retro” games that are still unplugged? Does the burgeoning secondary market for old and retro games need to be restructured in order to compete? Or is the quality of being unplugged providing enough value to stay viable?

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