Yee’s book is pleasantly neutral, avoiding the usual impulse that those who love technology often feel to overemphasize on its behalf. Games in particular have long been made to act as a universal receptacle for a broad swath of social fears—a recent study found that 61 percent of people in the UK think games can cause real-world violence and aggression, even though causal links between content and behavior in media have been persistently nigh-impossible to establish. And this viewpoint occurs in direct proportion with individuals’ acquaintance with games: The less one has played games, the more likely one is to presume they cause problematic behavior. The likelihood of this opinion jumps to 79 percent among people over age 60.

But while Yee has no end of evidence supporting the positive and often fascinatingly complex role online games like EverQuest (launched in 1999 and still beloved) play in the lives of millions of people, The Proteus Paradox deftly avoids righteousness and works primarily in the important service of challenging a medium rich with unexplored potential.

Yee restrains himself from breakneck advocacy for game concepts under all circumstances: If corporations use games to motivate and reward, might they not try to substitute those games for genuine compensation and the responsibility to instill a sense of value in their employees? If the collective ingenuity of a group of devoted gamers can be used to solve massive problems cooperatively, couldn’t ad firms also use virtual worlds’ “free-labor” economies to get players to, say, help generate high-impact keywords for a marketing campaign? “Engagement and exploitation may be two sides of the same coin,” Yee warns. “When we receive these invitations to play, we must remember that fun can end up being a lot of work.”

Online games still face significant and disheartening limitations that parallel the real-world problems many people believe virtual worlds should be able to solve—are maybe even responsible for solving. With so much to learn about ourselves in these massive play spaces, we urgently need to democratize the technology that will allow us to continue our creation of and experimentation with virtual worlds, Yee argues. What would we build if we had a new round of opportunity?

 

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Leigh Alexander is a gaming and social media culture journalist. As editor-at-large at Gamasutra, she covers issues of concern to the industry, and she freelances games criticism and essays. Her work has most recently appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, and The New Statesman.