A New Perfect Union
Darwin Stops Here
The Reality of a Fantasy
Somewhere outside the realities of time and space exists an entity known as Nameless. From his mind sprang not only the Universe but also a myriad of powerful but finite creatures who we may call man, dwarf, elf, and “god”. Many a moons ago, one such “god”, Veeshan, the ruler of the Plane of Sky, came upon the world of Norrath. She deposited her brood there, and much began to happen. Dragons walked and flew and powerful beings of great intellect, wisdom and strength were born. Many other gods became jealous of Norrath and visited Norrath intending to leave their mark.
The god Brell Selis created a magic portal in a cavern deep in Norrath and after discussion with the gods Tunare, Prexus, Rallos Zek, it was decided each would create a race to inhabit Norrath to keep the Wurmqueen at bay and to watch over the Dragonkind. As the races multiplied and the economy prospered, more gods came to Norrath and left behind more races. Eventually this led to the creation of races such as Dark Elves, Dwarves, Erudites, Frogloks, Gnolls, Humans (Norrathian Humans are not to be confused with Earthian Humans) and Iksars.
Thousands of eons passed and many a tale happened at Norrath. Empires were built, races matured, villages became cities, which turned into Kingdoms. Famous kings and queens built empires with their own styles and architectures. Wars shook up many a city and causing the erection of the Planes of Power. The Ogres Empire collapsed and the Giants spread across the planet. More gods visited and created more races. More things happened (all are painstakingly documented). Tunaria survived as a large city surrounded by fertile plains of Karana.
A man called Erud formed an alliance and left the city Qunos for the island of Odus and built the towering city of Erudin. Populated with scribes and scholars, wizards and sorcerers, Erudin ushered in the Age of Enlightenment. The long lost art Necromancy was rediscovered, and created much strife. Civil wars were fought, and so on, so forth.
Today, in Norrath it is an age of wonder. Older races have reclaimed much of the lost glory, younger races have matured and a vibrant economy stretches across Odus, Antnica and Faydwer. Battles are rare, but there are a myriad of alliances and factions. The landscape is lush with towers, cities, crypts, dungeons, forests and things beyond imagination.
People from the planet of Earth can now visit Norrath. They can even decide to live there. It is possible to interact with the races of Norrath, travel the magic landscape, and participate in the economy, the conflicts and the camaraderie. A huge world of action, adventure, skill building, relationships, treasure hunting and baffling intricacies await the human traveler to this wonderful land. Norrath is reachable in its full glory, just for a one-time fee of $39.95 and a monthly charge of $9.95 paid to Sony Entertainment, a US subsidiary of the Japanese giant, Sony Corporation.
The world of Norrath exits inside about 40 computer servers located in California. Humans access it over the Internet using a software program called “Everquest”. Everquest is a MMORPG, which is a kind of a MUDD. For the un-initiated, a MMORPG is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game and a MUDD is a Multi-User Dungeons and Dragons.
It all started with Dungeons and Dragons (DD)—an intelligent computer game, where humans could blunder though many a dungeons and fight with many a dragon. About 20 years ago it was exciting, today it is worse than blasé. DDs matured into MUDDs, which eventually led to MMORGPs. These are real toys for real people with way too much time on their hands.
But Everquest turned out to be different. Everquest probably created the most successful and the most fascinating “virtual world” out there. Everquest is a masterpiece of both art and technology. As a human, you enter Norrath as an “avatar”—different from the race of humans who live there. Your character, the avatar, can be chosen from a huge range of body types, physical characteristics, mental levels and personalities. As you enter the world of Norrath, the screen comes alive with beautiful scenery in photo-quality 3-D. Sounds, music, voices, special effects enchant your senses. It is like being inside a movie. Creatures and characters come at you from all directions. You can go anywhere; meet anyone, who treats you with a range of behaviors from violent to friendly. Yes, they even talk to you, and interact with you. Some try to kill you, some try to befriend you some try to cheat you and so on so forth. You can meet other avatars and talk to them or trade artifacts with them.
You can participate in the Norrath economy. You can make Norrathian money (platinum pieces or PP) or collect artifacts, charms, jewels and many a trinket with magical properties. Trade can happen between avatars and Norrathians (“a2n” trading) or between avatars (“a2a” trading). Actually, the description above is just the tip of the iceberg, in reality, Everquest is a fantasy beyond belief, and the amount of information, history, rules and situations are beyond the grasp of any single human.
With the advent of Everquest, something strange and mysterious is happening on Earth. Humans have taken the world of Norrath out of Norrath and brought it to the world of the Earth. The world of Earth participates in Norrath over the World Wide Web. Information, opinions, stories, experiences fill thousands of web pages on the Internet. Even a2a trading happen using earthly currency on the earthly web. It is quite amazing what the combination of a “silly game” and the power of computers and the power of the web have brought forth.
One such trekker through the Norrathian world is Edward Castranova, a professor of Economics at California State University. His treatise “Virtual Worlds—a First Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Front” is a fascinating read of his journey. He visits, gets killed over and over, takes on many identities, has mystifying experiences and then the quest of research engulfs him. He treats Norrath as a country and analyzes the economy. Through surveys and study, Catstranova’s has documented a wealth of unbelievable facts.
The clear winner over Norrath is Sony. There are about 400,000 human users of Everquest, providing Sony with revenue of $4 million a month. At any time, about 60,000 such visitors are present in Norrath. The average earthly human spends about 22 hours a week frolicking in Norrath. The average age is 24. Of them, 92% are males, 81% live in the US, 66% are well educated, 53% have full-time jobs (earning an average of $20/hour at the real job). While many marriages are wrecked by the addiction to Everquest, about 22% are married. While 20% consider themselves to be permanent residents of Norrath (not Earth!) about 22% want to become permanent residents of Norrath, and 40% say that if they could earn a sufficient wage from Norrath, they would give up their Earthly economic activity and go to Norrath full time. But what is the Norrathian economy?
Economy is where fantasy meets reality, the Norrathian economy does have its relationship to what we Earthlings call money. As one plays the game of Everquest, one gets to collect many an artifact and coins. These have value in Norrath using a2n trading, but they have more value on Earth using a2a trading. For example, if you really want a Crafted Velium Warsword (and could not find one), you can get it from an avatar who has one, in exchange for some real dollars. You find such a real person, and decide the price using many auction sites, such as Ebay.
Depending upon supply and demand at any time, the prices of these artifacts varies and are priced in real US dollars. With data collected in samples from many web based auction sites, Professor Castranova estimates that the goods traded constitutes a GNP for Norrath of $135 million, making it the 77th richest country in our world (about the same as Russia). The per-capita GNP is $2,226 placing it higher than China or India.
The income of people collecting treasures in Norrath, i.e. the amount of money you can make by playing the game, is about $3.42/hour, far exceeding the cost you have to pay to Sony. Using the economic model, we find that the Norrathian currency, the PP is valued at about $0.01, higher than the Japanese Yen. Like on Earth, there is a great divide between the rich and the poor—some folks have amassed huge values in Norrathian wealth while many have very little.
With the success of Norrath, many more such games are poised to hit the market. Sony is quite upset about the trading in Norrathian treasures in real currency, and has used the pressure of lawsuits to stop all transactions on public sites such as Ebay. The trading continues, albeit underground. Maybe, Sony is contemplating a scheme to make more money off of the real side of the Everquest fantasy.
Norrath gives a new meaning to the phrase “it is a different world out there”.
Partha Dasgupta is on the faculty of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at Arizona State University in Tempe. His specializations are in the areas of Operating Systems, Cryptography and Networking. His homepage is at http://cactus.eas.asu.edu/partha