Forthcoming from University of Michigan Press, Star Worlds explores the future-oriented universe of online virtual worlds in the popular science fiction genre of Star Wars and Star Trek, inhabited over a dozen years by computer game players. Using the methods of social and information science, it considers the paradox that technology can both liberate and enslave human beings.
Star Wars and Star Trek are the dominant science fiction mythologies bequeathed to us by the twentieth century, and they offer rather profound conceptions of the tension between freedom and control in human economic, political and social interactions. This book reports extensive role-playing research in four online virtual worlds based on these two very different traditions, where hundreds of thousands of people sought to experience life beyond the boundaries of our planet: the massively multiplayer online games Star Wars Galaxies, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Star Trek Online, plus the Star Trek community in the non-game, user-created virtual environment, Second Life.
In addition to the universal theme of freedom versus control, this book explores the relationship between a real person and the role that person plays, the relationship of an individual to society, and the relationship of human beings to computing technology. Star Wars Galaxies offered players in 2003-2011 a remarkable degree of freedom to create their own virtual lives on other planets, both individually and as members of a flourishing community, building their own homes and allegiances. Star Wars: The Old Republic forces each player to serve either the Empire or the Republic, unable to progress without dutifully completing pre-determined missions, structured like acts in a drama defined by much pre-scripted dialog. Star Trek Online incorporates many of the tensions between freedom and control of the original television program, including a heavy emphasis on dutiful membership in a hierarchical military organization, and division of the experience into many short episodes. Second Life is an all-purpose virtual world, in which practically all content is user-created, including organizations like United Federation Starfleet, United Federation Gamma Quadrant, or the Vulcan Council, and where an annual science fiction convention includes many Star Trek exhibits.
The four “star worlds” explored in this book are not merely fictional expressions of popular culture, but are also computer simulations of future possibilities that some day human beings may really experience. At the same time, they illustrate today’s dilemmas concerning the role of technology as liberator or oppressor in post-industrial society. The author explores these virtual worlds by role-playing fourteen avatars with different skills and goals, as well as collecting ethnographic and quantitative data about the social behavior of other players.