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Shakespeare goes digital

MacArthur Foundation backs professor's foray into game building; the Bard is coming to an MMOG near you soon.


Three-dimensional digital worlds and the world of William Shakespeare--it's hard to imagine two more disparate universes.

But bridging the gap between them is exactly what Edward Castronova, an associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University and the leading expert on the economies of virtual worlds, is doing.

On Thursday, the MacArthur Foundation is expected to announce a $240,000 grant to Castronova and his team to build Arden: The World of Shakespeare, a massively multiplayer online game, or MMOG, built entirely around the plays of the Bard.

For Castronova, a longtime Shakespeare fan who once acted in a performance of Richard III and wrote a book called Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games, bringing Shakespeare's universe to life is the chance of a lifetime. And, it's an opportunity to use an MMOG as a serious social-science research tool.

"It's a culmination of a dream I had. I've been wanting to do this all my life, being a game developer," Castronova said. "We're going to be building a massively multiplayer world that we hope someday will be kind of like the commercial-grade ones with quests and monsters and so, but we have a somewhat different goal than that of the commercial sector...We'd like to allow our players to learn something valuable, so that's why it's about Shakespeare."

Arden will be an unusual entry to the growing field of MMOGs, which is already dominated by games and virtual worlds like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, and Ultima Online. But while those games are published by for-profit corporations, Arden is entirely an academic project.

Castronova said Arden will launch--it's unclear when, as the game is still in the early design stage--built around the theme of Richard III. That's because the play, set during the War of the Roses, offers historical context, as well as enough political intrigue, secret conniving, deal making, and war to delight any gamer, he said.

"It's a historical Shakespeare play, so that means it's really easy for us to take all the sort of fantasy stuff like knights in shining armor and peasants and woodworkers...and we can just really fit right into Richard III right away."

But Arden has a more serious goal than just letting gamers cavort around in an Elizabethan playground.

Castronova likens Arden to a "petri dish" where he and other researchers can conduct ongoing social-science experiments. He said the idea is similar to a biologist running multiple versions of an experiment, each with slight variations in conditions, to see how those conditions affect the outcome.

"Now we have this technology for making little pocket societies, and we can do different governments, different economies, different social norms in the different environments," he said, "and see how it affects the things we care about, like equality and justice and growth and efficiency."

To Julian Dibbell, a leading writer about virtual worlds and the author of Play Money: Or how I quit my day job and made millions trading virtual loot, Castronova's notion of using Arden as a social science laboratory is interesting, if ambitious.

Castronova "has given great examples of ways you can use existing MMOGs to do experiments that you can't do in real life, because history doesn't usually allow for parallel universes," said Dibbell, who along with Castronova, is a founding author of the virtual-worlds blog Terra Nova. "I buy into [the petri dish argument] as a plausible hypothesis that should be tested."

However, Dibbell also cautioned that anyone hoping to capitalize on the behavior of gamers should be cautious.

"The experimental subjects have minds of their own and desires of their own, especially when they think they're there to have a good time," said Dibbell. "It can be very tough to just change things at will [in a virtual world]. To tweak the parameters and circumstances. But I trust that that is what [Castronova] is working on, and he understands those things."

The game will instantly immerse players in Elizabethan environments, and successful players will, it is hoped, soak in the characters, as well as the plotlines, of Shakespeare's plays.

Castronova is utilizing unusual methods to achieve that goal.

He said one of the more unique elements of Arden is that the game will be seeded with Shakespearean texts, many of which will be the most valuable treasure players can find.

"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]," Castronova explained. "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."

To Aaron Delwiche, an assistant professor of communications at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, who has conducted classes in the virtual world Second Life, Castronova is onto something as a learning tool.

"I think it would be a fantastic learning tool, and it really builds on the key principle of education in virtual worlds," Delwiche said. "And that's the notion of situated learning...The idea that what you're talking about, situating people in a world rather than trying to explain something to people, gives them a feeling that they are part of [something]." Meanwhile, Linda Charnes, a professor of English and a Shakespeare scholar at Indiana University, thinks Arden presents an exciting teaching opportunity, even as it presents real risks in terms of helping people learn about the works of Shakespeare.

Charnes, who is donating her time to consult with Castronova on Shakespearean questions, said she likes the idea of game players spending their time learning.

"Shakespearean studies in the future, especially for young people, [are] going to have to take some different forms," Charnes said, "and this might be one way to introduce" the discipline.

She also said she thinks Arden, if properly realized, could become a useful multimedia tool for venues like London's Globe Theater.

But she also warned that Castronova and his team have to be careful in how they build Arden.

"What's Shakespearean about Shakespeare is not the plot, it's the characters," Charnes said. "What the Arden project will want to avoid is simply becoming something that borrows plots and character names from Shakespeare plays...Because if it [does] that, there's nothing Shakespearean about it."

Still, Charnes said she is optimistic about Arden.

"I can imagine being an ambassador for this project," she said, "in the world of Shakespearean theater and scholarship."

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