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Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 December 2007, 09:21 GMT
The Bard helps digital experiment
By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News website

Prof Castronova and artwork for Arden, University of Indiana
Arden turns Shakespeare's works into a persistent game world

Usually it is only actors that play Shakespeare but now gamers are getting the chance to go adventuring in a virtual world built around the Bard's plays.

Called Arden, the virtual world is the creation of Professor Edward Castronova and colleagues in the Synthetic Worlds Institute at the University of Indiana.

An economist by training, Prof Castronova has led attempts to quantify the economic activity and impact of virtual worlds - be that in the games themselves or in the real world when people pay cold cash for virtual goods.

Arden, said Prof Castronova, was an attempt to go much further than this after the fact analysis. It will give social scientists an entire populated world on which to perform experiments - something always lacking in the real world.

"We're interested in social dynamics and economics," he said.

Pocket world

Social scientists would perform experiments on the thriving world by fiddling with its defining characteristics. Some of the changes could be obvious, such as the rate of inflation, or more subtle. But, said Prof Castronova, the results should be instructive - even for the real world.

"I have seen nothing in virtual worlds that violates any social theory I know about," he added. "A market is a market whether it is in ancient Athens, Shakespeare's London or Azeroth."

"If you have a theory about human society and it does not survive the transition across the membrane to a virtual world then it's not a very interesting theory," he said.

Screengrab of Arden, University of Indiana
Familiar characters appear in the Arden world
Social theorists such as Karl Marx might have reached very different conclusions if they had been given a pocket society to experiment on, said Prof Castronova.

The first public version of Arden is now available for anyone to visit - provided they have an up to date copy of the NeverWinter Nights game and have installed the Arden add-on produced by Mr Castronova and his colleagues.

Anyone expecting a gritty recreation of Elizabethan life might be surprised by what they find in Arden, said Dr Castronova.

"Shakespeare has a very rich lore and fantasy environment second only to Tolkien," he said. "Both have elves."

"We felt that it should not be historical but like Shakespeare's dream so you could have Rome next to Bohemia or the Forest of Arden," he said.

Adventuring in the world involves carrying out quests for familiar Shakespearian characters such as John Falstaff.

While the characters in the game speak authentic Shakespeare something else vital, admits Dr Castronova, got lost while it was being created.

Screengrab of Arden, University of Indiana
You can live out your own history or tragedy in Arden
"We were so focused on making it accurate for Shakespeare that we didn't really think about the fun part of it, the monsters and puzzles," he said.

"Most people that play will go in and poke around and if they are not immediately engaged they will just quit," he added. "The over-arching objective is to make a social lab and we cannot do that without having people in it."

Dr Castronova and his colleagues are now working on Arden II which will be set in London and will emphasise the fun that can be had playing Shakespeare and, by the by, learn something about him and his works.

Victorian tales

London is also the setting for a virtual world under development by Lee Sheldon - a game designer and lecturer at Indiana.

Set in Victorian times the London Town virtual world will meld together the fictional, such as Dracula, with real world figures such as Jack the Ripper. It will be a timeless place, said Mr Sheldon, where Queen Victoria never dies.

The idea behind the setting, said Mr Sheldon, was to let people discover the period by playing and being entertained.

Queen Victoria, PA
London Town turns the city into a Victorian-themed game
Quests in the game will vary depending on which social class someone decides to be. They could help Dickens find a lost watch, travel with Professor Challenger to South America to search for dinosaurs on a hidden plateau or help Moriarty wrest control of the underworld from Dracula.

"It's an idealised society so it's as much fun to play the lower classes as the upper," said Mr Sheldon.

To prove the concept a prototype is being built of the Crystal Palace and Hyde Park to show people what it might look like. Mr Sheldon is now looking for help to fund the creation of London Town.

The impetus for the Victorian game also has a pedagogical element, said Mr Sheldon, but he added this would be concealed beneath a thick layer of fun.

"It's all about letting people experience some rich story telling," he said, "to re-introduce them to the whole period."

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