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A midsummer night's virtual world

newsmaker Edward Castronova wants to learn how you behave in an online space. Along the way, you'll have fun with Shakespeare.

On Thursday, the MacArthur Foundation is announcing a $240,000 grant to Edward Castronova for his online game, "Arden: The World of Shakespeare."

The idea behind the project is to produce a virtual world steeped in the rich lore and characters of the playwright's work.

But Castronova--an Indiana University associate professor of telecommunications best-known as the world's leading expert on the economies of virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games--sees his initiative as far more than just a historical adaptation of the Bard's work. He looks at it as a way to teach students about Shakespeare's life, times and writing, as well as a way to conduct innovative social-science research.

For now, "Arden" is little more than a concept. But with the MacArthur money, Castronova and a small team of game designers are beginning to move forward with the programming and implementation of the ambitious project.

Earlier this month, Castronova sat down with CNET to talk about "Arden." His answers reveal an ambition to change the way educators teach and scientists study--all in the guise of pure entertainment.

It shows a lot of hubris and self-confidence to take this glorious endowment of culture and to do a video game on it.

Q: What is "Arden"?
Castronova: It's a persistent environment that allows students and professors to learn about virtual-world technology. We'd like to teach our players something valuable, so that's why Shakespeare is our main source of lore. You'll find a lot of things in Shakespeare that are really fun, like ghosts and witches and battles and a lot of the same kind of things that you find in these contemporary video games.

What is the "petri dish" element of "Arden"?
Castronova: It's a new way of doing social-science research that is like the way they do things in the natural sciences. In biological research, you can take three petri dishes that replicate the same conditions and have different things going on. You can't really do that with social science, because you're working with all of society. Until now. Now we have this technology for making little pocket societies and we can do different governments, different economies, different social norms and see how it affects the things we care about like equality and justice and growth and efficiency.

Does that mean different "instances" of "Arden"?
Castronova: Well, I guess the term would be shards. For people who know about these games, for example, "World of Warcraft" has multiple servers and each server is sort of an isolated little village of its own. So we would use the fact that you can have multiple villages and have slightly different rules of the game in each one.

How does the Shakespearean environment come into play in this?
Castronova: It is a smoke screen. You don't want people saying, "Hey, I'm in an experiment. What are they experimenting about? Oh! They're experimenting about this, so I'm going to think about that as I choose my behavior." You want people saying, "Hey, here's a game where there's questing and adventure and monsters and ghosts and, oh, there's this guy named William Shakespeare. I'm just having a good time." Meanwhile, behind the scene, the social scientists are playing around with inflation and production and governmental structures and stuff without the players ever noticing it. So the Shakespeare part is a distraction, but in research terms, it's a very honest and useful one.

Will different parts of "Arden" be devoted to different Shakespeare works?
Castronova: Yes. We're going to start with "Richard III," which is one of his most popular plays. It's a story that has lots and lots of secret conniving and deal-making and battles and political intrigue. And it's historical, so that means it's really easy for us to take all the (usual) fantasy (game) stuff like knights in shining armor and peasants and woodworkers and they just fit right into "Richard III" right away. The way we envision it is once you get this thing going, I'll have another crop of students come in and say, "OK, what play are we doing this year?" And we'll say, "Well, let's do a post-apocalyptic 'Macbeth.'"

You're best-known as a virtual-worlds economist. Will there be a functioning economy and currency?
Castronova: There's going to be a currency. It's going to be the Old English currency, which will be kind of cumbersome to learn. But you'll learn something about what it was like, so when you see a Shakespeare play and they talk about money, you'll have a clue what they're talking about. But we're going to start with a crafting economy: resources and harvesting and things like that.

It's well-known you're not a fan of secondary markets for in-game goods. Do you think there will be a secondary market and real-money trades involving "Arden"?
Castronova: I believe it is possible to design a game where real money trade has a minimal impact. I don't think it's possible to completely eradicate it. But you can design games where it doesn't matter. My objective is to design a game where we can experiment with it. So, we'll have aspects of the game where we can turn them on or off and see what happens to the real money trade and test out mechanisms for actually playing with what it does to the bottom line. What does it do to the play experience?

Talk about some of the classes of characters in "Arden."
Castronova: The most unique class for us are bards, who are actually kind of the wizard class, because Shakespeare is known as the Bard. We're going to make some texts of Shakespeare available as the most treasured items. So that incents people to collect bits of Shakespeare. You might get an ordinary broad sword, but if you collect the "To be or not to 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 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 playbook. You've got to know your Shakespeare, but if you do collect these texts you can just playfully kick butt the way wizards do.

Talk about emergent game play in "Arden."
Castronova: In the long run, we're going to have an emergent, self-forming government coalition around the king. The Wars of the Roses period is known as the king maker period in English history, so many of the plays are about that, about dynastic struggles. So, we'll have guilds playing the role of the Duke of Norfolk and his men, and if you capture the capital of Norfolk then you become the House of Norfolk and you're the leaders. And the Duke of Norfolk might be battling the Earl of Essex and that's the other guild.

What do you think that "Arden" offers that's not possible in other virtual worlds?
Castronova: At universities, we don't have a track record of game design, but we sure as hell have a track record in economic design and political design, social design and the practice of designing human institutions. So players of our world should look for a great deal more sophistication in terms of what the economy is, what the government is and what the military situation is like.

What are some limitations of "Arden"?
Castronova: Shakespeare imposes some massive limitations. For example, there's no elemental magic, no fireballs, no ice storms. The most Shakespearean magic is mind magic, illusions and charms, things like that. Another limitation is, strictly speaking, there's no healing cleric class anywhere in Shakespeare. The closest you get are some friars, some brothers, religious monks and so on. Another massive limitation is that this kind of a world is just going to get heaped with criticism and abuse by traditionalist Shakespearean scholars. They're just going to go, "Oh, they're making Shakespeare into a video game."

But we're trying to get people to understand that any given narrative can be approached in a nonlinear interactive way and be fruitful. It shows a lot of hubris and self-confidence to take this glorious endowment of culture and to do a video game on it. So we're just really putting our necks out.

So, how did you pitch this project?
Castronova: I pitched it not by focusing on Shakespeare lore, but this experimental idea. There were basically two arguments for funding. No. 1, that this is an unprecedented new way of doing social-science research, one that could revolutionize how social science is done. The second one is that this is an important technology and right now no university is building this. Right now, this technology is being created solely in the private sector. It's important for noncommercial actors to at least understand the technology and the impact that it has on people, and the commercial sector doesn't have any incentive to study these kinds of broad public-policy questions.

What kind of guidelines did the MacArthur Foundation give you for the grant?
Castronova: They said they'd fund "Arden" for a year. "Show us what you can do in a year." And the funding allowed us to hire three or four people. And Indiana is a pretty wired campus, so if you announce at a wired Big 10 campus that somebody is actually building an MMORPG, the volunteers come out of the woodwork. What a great way to get into that industry. I mean, what a great thing for your portfolio, right?