Real Culture in Virtual Worlds

In this month’s Journal of Virtual World Research, Tom Boellstorff, author of the much-praised Coming of age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human, makes an important observation about theories of culture in virtual worlds.

To concretize my concerns, it will prove helpful to consider the example of some recent work of the economist Edward Castronova, whose influential research I often cite with great approval in my own. In his article “On the Research Value of Large Games: Natural Experiments in Norrath and Camelot,” Castronova (2006) draws upon large datasets from two online games on develop fascinating insights about interpersonal coordination. Castronova rightly sees in this approach possibilities that have “never before existed in the long history of social thinking” and are “of incredible power and value” (p. 183).

As the title of his article indicates, Castronova explains this power and value by asserting that online games allow us to conduct “natural experiments,” explaining that, “Until now, it has not been possible to take all of society as a research object; such a thing is too big to fit in a lab . . . Now however [. . .] it is indeed possible to replicate entire societies and allow them to operate in parallel” (p. 163). (5)

Castronova’s position draws on the popular suspicion that because Second Life is a virtual world — i.e., a program, which suggests a kind of artificial delimitation — it is more coherent, unified, and available to analysis than is the world proper. The error here, as Boellstorff points out, lies in thinking that a virtual world can only produce virtual culture, that it is not part of the world per se and is therefore simpler, more contained, and open to easy surveillance. In fact, what Boellstorff shows first and foremost is just howunimportant the self-enclosed finitude of SL really is. If anything, the popular image of virtual worlds as less than real and less than able to capture or express real, cultural phenomena has the unintended effect of inhibiting genuine virtual anthropology.

Abel Gance’s 1922 epic “La roue” now available on DVD

La roueIn a post praising Flicker Alley’s continual release of otherwise unavailable films, Kristin Thompson reminds us that Abel Gance’s 1922 epic, La roue, long overdue on DVD, was released last year. Though Gance is most well-known for his Napoleon, La roue is often thought of as his greatest picture.

A case in point is the new DVD version of Abel Gance’s 1922 epic, La roue (”The Wheel”), which the enterprising company Flicker Alleyreleased last year. In its short existence since 2002, Flicker Alley has done exciting work. Its recent “A Modern Musketeer” collection finally makes a selection of Douglas Fairbanks’ pre-swashbuckler comedies and dramas available. I personally prefer these lively, witty, imaginative films to Fairbanks’ 1920s costume pictures. Flicker Alley’sGeorge Méliès set is one of the great achievements of DVD production and deservedly won last year’s prize for the best silent DVD set at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Other highlights include F. W. Murnau’s rare psychological drama Phantom (1922) and Louis Feuillade’s serial,Judex (1917). I wrote about Flicker Alley’s release of Discovering Cinema, on early sound and color.