söndag 12 februari 2012

Books I've read lately

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I'm still months behind in writing about the books I have read "lately", but I promise to catch up later this spring. In other words, I read the book below last year (primarily on October and November) and they all relate to online games.

As I have written earlier, only half of the books I read turn up here on the blog, as the other half concerns my "private" (nonwork-related) interests concerning sustainability, ecology, resource issues (peak oil), economy etc. But with the two research applications I handed in earlier this week, my future reading list seems to consist of a higher proportion of books where these two areas overlap in different ways (using IT to meet sustainability challenges for example). From now on, I will thus write about all (non-fiction) book that I read, not just the books that I have (up until now) considered to be "work-related", i.e. relating to social media, virtual communities, internet culture etc.

I started to read Julian Dibbell's book "Play money: Or, how I quit my day job and made millions trading virtual loot" (2006) five years ago but then, for some unknown reason, put it aside. I picked it up again and finished it in a week this time around. Julian is a journalist and a storyteller, I have read his previous book, and he's really good at spinning strange and wonderful tales from cyberspace (have a look at his homepage). I very much recommend his Wired text "The unreal estate boom" (2003) which could also be seen as an great introduction to this book. No-one is better than Julian at teasing out the strangeness of virtual commerce, and at the same time normalizing it and making it (also) seem perfectly normal by describing strange phenomena and interviewing the people who make it happen, explaining how they think and what their motivations are (money, status, friendship etc.). This book is the story of a journalist (Julian) who - framed as an experiment - takes a leave from his day-time job for a year and tries not just to survive, but to make more money buying and selling virtual objects from an online game (Ultima Online) than he ever has as a journalist. Which is stressful as the experiment easily could demands all his time - something his young daughter, and especially his wife is not totally content with (understatement) at times.... My one complaint is that the actual stories he tells (about "chinese gold diggers", "server farms", skullduggery and slightly-shady business ideas) are a better read than the experiment/challenge and his statistics-infused updates on how much money he made this week compared to last week and how the clock is ticking down and his fiscal year is coming to an end. The end of the book is hilarious; he calls the IRS to find out if he has to pay taxes and how to go about finding out (to say nothing of actually paying them). A great read and very entertaining - everything I have read by Julian has in fact been great.

Peter Zackariasson's "Cyberk@pitalism: Om konsten att tjäna pengar på att döda drakar, stjäla vapen och dansa naken i virtuella världar" (2009) ["Cyberc@pitalsim: On the art of earning money by killing dragons, stealing weapons and dancing naked in virtual worlds"] suffers greatly from a comparison with Julian's book. This pains me since I know Peter, but the truth is that his book is shoddily put together and has plenty of spelling errors and poor language (there is basically something to be irritated on on every page). There are unfortunately even greater problem with the book and I'm sure there is an interesting history behind it of (perhaps) hurried deadlines, lax on non-existing editing from the publisher etc. The book has much going for it, since the area it covers is exciting and full of amazing stories, but this unfortunately isn't the book to read to find out about real-money trade of virtual objects - I'm sorry to have to say that Julian's book (above) together with the references at the Wikipedia page on virtual economy are a better starting point for exploring this area.

Another take on unveiling the same kind of weird and thought-provoking things, i.e. social phenomena in online worlds, is journalist Tim Guest's book "Second lives: A journey through virtual worlds" (2008). Tim, having grown up with his British mother in a religious sect led by a Guru, has some interesting experiences and insights about escaping into fantasy (virtual) worlds. Lots of quirky, interesting reflections and strange stories - a tall traveller's tale from that mythical country called Online. While Tim writes about several games/worlds, his focus is on Second Life. One chapter treats the Second Life Mafia (previously the Sims Online Mafia) that steps in when a weak state (the game publisher) doesn't do enough to uphold "law and order" in the virtual world. He also describes the cyber-anarchists (or terrorists?) who work from the inside to bring down the Second Life servers (as a protest? - it's difficult to know even though Tim has interviewed the actors themselves). Just as Julian and Peter (above), Tim also writes about money and commerces, but as apart from the other two books, this is just one of several, rather than the main topic of the book. At one point the book gets a little too personal. I'm not sure I want to know that the author, whose book I'm reading, had a sort-of nervous breakdown on a trip where everything went wrong, and "switched on the porn channel [and] bought some non-existent company". Still, Tim spins some great stories and has some great insights when analyzing these stories and his own experiences. Recommended.

Finally, I have read Maria Bäcke's Ph.D. thesis, "Power games: Rules and roles in Second Life" (2011) - (pdf file available here). I met Maria at a workshop I attended 18 months ago and despite not having met since, it feels like we know each other a lot better than we actually do. She has since then finished here Ph.D. thesis and presented it at the Department of Technology and Aesthetics at Blekinge Institute of Technology. Maria has studies four roleplaying communities inside Second Life, of which the most weird is an enactment of John Norman's trashy male-power-fantasy book series about a parallel world called Gor. Fans of Gor have elaborated a quasi-philosphy and a lifestyle around the dominance-submission (master-slave) theme of the books, so the Second Life Goreans are a kind of, well, weird BSDM community. The thesis is a monograph, and even though I liked it, I can't say I understood all aspects having to do with performance studies nor the post-structuralist analysis (Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari). I am on the other hand familiar with sociologist Erwin Goffman's theories about "performances" in our everyday lives and found her analysis of the balance and tension between make-believe (role-playing) and make-belief (everyday life performances) very interesting.

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