Books: Halting State
Halting State, by Charles Stross.
It is rare that I find a science fiction book which doesn’t ask me to put my expertise on hold and just “trust in the magic”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as fond of indulging in pseudo-scientific technobabble as the next geek, but rarely does it make me think more deeply about the real science I do day to day. Halting state is different. It paints a near-future fictional world in which all the technological and social changes seem not only plausible, but likely.
It is the world of Web 3.14159 in which augmented reality goggles are the new pervasive network interface. And Stross’s Computer Science background shows in the detail. This new system has all the quirks and flaws of the old: patchy databases, annoying griefers and weird geek hackery (like the Ankh Morpork custom overlay that turns ordinary street traffic into Pratchettesque dwarves, trolls and dodgy food vendors). It smacks of truth: this is how it really would be.
Games form the foundation of Stross’ plot — MMORPGs, LARPs and ARGs — and here too the realism is convincing. The CEO of a “diversified economics consultancy” explains that it is his company’s job to stabilise the economies of virtual worlds explains:
“…to keep the customers happy you have to keep rewarding them. Playing the game is inflationary because they keep burgling the tombs of dead gods, breaking into the governor of Jamaica’s dungeon vaults, colonising the Andromeda galaxy and so on. And you know, you can’t tax them or make the money decay, because that would be No Fun, and if the game stops being Fun, why play? That’s the difference between in-game economics and the National Bank — the bank doesn’t have to worry about whether we’re enjoying ourselves.”
which is as succinct description of MMORPG economics as you’re going to find anywhere. Much of the detail here reminds me of Edward Castronova’s account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier.
In general, I like this book because Stross takes games seriously as cultural and business phenomena without forgetting that they are games. Without wanting to spoil any plot details, I will merely say that the ideas it raises about the future of ARGs are thought provoking. For all this, I will forgive a plot that is high on exposition and confusion and low on action, and the final chapter in which it is all explained to the poor reader. The book isn’t perfect, but I still recommend it to my fellow game creators as a source of inspiration and food for the imagination.