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Sociologists using Warcraft to predict the future of human civilization; sell books


When I was younger, I was in a perpetual war with my parents over video gaming. I suppose I still am in a way -- they still ask me when I'm going to "grow" out of them.

Because of this, I'm always on the lookout for ways to justify spending so much of my free time on my electronic hobby. Back in the days of the Super Nintendo, I insisted that I was building hand-eye coordination. Thankfully, I now have new ammunition: I am a participant in a "virtual prototype of tomorrow, of a real human future in which tribe-like groups will engage in combat over declining natural resources." One that scientists are actively studying and using to learn about our real-world society.

Those are the words of MIT Press, the publisher of a new book by sociologist Williams Sims Bainbridge, The Warcraft Civilization. The book is a product of over 2300 hours worth of game play by the author. New Scientist's Culture Lab has a fascinating interview with Bainbridge, giving insight into Warcraft and religion, Warcraft as the next afterlife, and Warcraft as a predictor of the future of Western civilization.

Bainbridge poses some pretty interesting questions about society, using the World of Warcraft as a medium to answer them. He notes the role of religion as a part of Warcraft -- players write it off as fantasy, but understand it being necessary to appreciate the game:
The horrendous question that always troubles me is, what if religion is factually false but necessary for human well-being? What does science do then?
Maybe we will move to a time when we no longer make a distinction between belief and the suspension of disbelief. The difference between faith and fantasy might not have been very distinct in ancient times, and it's possible that we will move towards a time when instead of religion, people's hopes can be expressed in something that's acknowledged to be a fantasy but also, on some level, sort of real. WoW might exemplify that kind of post-religious future.
For those of us who invest a little too much time in Warcraft, we can at least take solace in the fact that we're taking part of a culture that is, in its own special way, indistinguishable from the real world. One that needs to be preserved:
I feel we need to create some kind of public digital library of the culturally or historically most interesting virtual worlds, many of these game-like, as they go out of business. There are at least three already out of business that need to be preserved, such as The Matrix Online. You can hear an authentic performance of Claudio Monteverdi's L'Orfeo opera from 1607, but you can't go to The Matrix Online. It's gone.
There's plenty more in the article, including a description of the world's first scientific conference where participants drowned and were mauled by hyenas. Or, as I like to call it, the most awesome scientific conference ever.

For those interested, The Warcraft Civilization was released on March 20 in the U.K. and is scheduled for release on March 31 here in the U.S.

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