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Last modified: Thursday, October 19, 2006

MacArthur Foundation grant will enable IU professors to virtually recreate the world of Shakespeare

Project aids social science researchers while being a teaching tool

Oct. 19, 2006

Edward Castronova

Edward Castronova, associate professor in IU Bloomington's Department of Telecommunications, stands at the entrance to "Arden."

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Let's say you were able to visit the Boarshead Tavern in Shakespeare's 16th century London and hoist a few pints served by the lovely Mistress Quickly. Your drinking partner could be none other than the witty Sir John Falstaff.

Eventually, you may want to leave the pub to visit the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and even the Globe Theater. Out on the streets of the old city, other familiar characters from the bard's plays approach you. If you run into the ghost of William Hastings or Shylock, they may have something for you to do. Along the way, you become engrained in Shakespeare's world and familiar with its language and societal norms.

All that would be impossible in the real world, but not in the synthetic worlds made possible by today's computers. That's largely the premise of a new project by an Indiana University professor who received a $240,000 seed money grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Edward Castronova, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the IU Bloomington Department of Telecommunications, believes that Shakespeare's world can be built in a computer.

"Video game companies make these worlds where millions of people get together online to encounter orcs and dragons. Why not Shakespeare?" said Castronova. "He's just as fun, and better for the soul."

To realize this vision, Castronova, a leading expert on the economics of large-scale online games, is becoming a developer himself. He wants the multiplayer synthetic world in which he is basing the world of Shakespeare to both educate students and provide other social scientists with a new research tool.

"What we plan to do is have people encounter the texts in Shakespeare and ideas in the text at many points within a really fun, multiplayer game, so without even knowing it, they gradually are learning more about the bard's work," said Castronova, author of the influential book, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games.

He also directs the Synthetic Worlds Initiative, a research effort at IU Bloomington whose aim is to study immersive digital spaces that can host many online users on a persistent basis.

While Castronova hopes that users will find the immersive experience to be educational, his larger purpose is to create a place where serious social science can be conducted.

Because synthetic worlds can be designed for a purpose, they can be designed to explore the evolution of social patterns, he said, "being in essence social science Petri dishes: controlled environments for studying the evolution of macro-level forces of government, law, economics, sociality, learning and culture. Synthetic worlds present an unprecedented opportunity to open a new frontier in the understanding of human affairs.

"The people who make big budget commercial games have unwittingly discovered a great experimental tool," he said. "They build these places; they make up some kind of lore about orcs and dragons and elves, and people go in and play the different roles. Meanwhile, indirectly, they have put in markets, governance structures, opportunities to communicate with others and create societies, groups, guilds and larger corporations of people.

"They put all of this stuff in to facilitate their game play, but as a social scientist, I look at this and say, 'Oh my goodness, this is a really fruitful research tool.'"

Charnes image

Linda Charnes, associate professor of English at IU, has published several books about Shakespeare.

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For example, if researchers want to study the effect of taxes on work productivity, frequently they compare two populations of people who may be similar, but whose experiences are different. Castronova said an immersive tool like the one he's creating can provide researchers with control that doesn't exist in the real world. Game societies could be designed with fine changes in variables that would allow researchers to see cause and effect.

Linda Charnes, an associate professor of English at IUB who has published several books about Shakespeare and contemporary culture, has agreed to be a consultant on the project. She will ensure that it captures what is particularly Shakespearean about Shakespeare.

"What's special about Shakespeare is not to be found in his plot lines, but rather in the psychological complexity of his characters," said Charnes, author of the new book Hamlet's Heirs: Shakespeare and the Politics of a New Millennium (Routledge, 2006). "Finding ways to convey that internal complexity in a video game will be very interesting, and I look forward to the challenge."

Castronova expects to involve faculty from across the university in the project, including its renowned Jacobs School of Music, School of Informatics and School of Education. It already is offering IU students with a unique opportunity to design and produce something that does not exist at game design programs elsewhere in the U.S.

"What people say about the game industry on the design side is that it's very conservative, that there's such a concern about losing money that nobody really innovates very much in terms of game design," Castronova said. "There are a lot of games out there that look about the same. I have to think that we can push in different directions, and I feel like we're going to discover some modes of game play that are going to be fun to do.

"When I talk to people in the industry, they say they do not care what kind of degree or certification people have. What they want to see is whether you have worked on a game," he added. "At IU, before this project came along, we didn't have the ability to say to students they can work on one of these large online games, which are the most exciting part of the industry. We will actually have a project, and we'll let students at all levels work on it. "

Entry-level salaries in the industry can be lucrative, with designers making $60,000 to $80,000 annually and producers making $80,000 to $100,000. It is a growing industry that largely lacks an educational pipeline for new talent. Companies are desperate to hire young, energetic people who have hands-on experience.

"It's important to imagine what the world's going to be like in 10 to 15 years. I think there's going to be an increasing demand for this kind of practical, virtual tool," Castronova said. "Right now, almost all of the expertise is in the commercial sector. We have an opportunity now to actually be the first university to develop expertise in these applications and better understand their value for teaching and research."

Castronova appreciates that the typical commercial online games and virtual worlds cost tens of millions of dollars to develop. What he is doing may be seen as "a heroic effort in the Don Quixote sense," he added. "But at a university, we have a lot of advantages that people in the commercial sector don't have."