Neal Stephenson's REAMDE

REAMDE is speculative fiction author Neal Stephenson's latest novel. His previous work has dealt with virtual reality, cryptography, Baroque-era Europe, and more, but REAMDE represents his first explicit foray into video games as a literary topic. I've personally been a fan of Stephenson for some time, and was excited when I learned about his latest book (and got a signed copy!) back at GDC Online 2011. The book sat unopened on my shelf for a long time, but I finally committed to reading the 1000+ page tome, and now that I have I can in good faith recommend it to any of our readers with even a passing interest in virtual worlds.

For starters, though, let me make clear that games are only a part of the story (a very important part, but still just a part). In typical Stephensonian fashion, the narrative spans a complex, richly, developed world (two worlds, in fact, counting the game world he has created), with multiple intertwined story lines. It is a story of the massively multiplayer world of T'Rain, a World of Warcraft-esque MMORPG, but also of Russian mafiosos, Chinese hackers, MI6 agents, and more.

The story hinges on the titular "REAMDE" virus, which, once it infects your computer, makes all your files inaccessible until you deposit a ransom of hidden virtual gold in a specified location in the T'Rain game world. As the virus spreads, it begins to wreck havoc with the intricate economy of the T'Rain world. More and more infected users deposit their ransoms in the region of the game world specified by the virus designers, and it becomes a veritable killing ground as other players learn of the virus and converge on the region in search of the hidden gold. There are far more details to the game world that further complicate matters, and things really start to go bananas once the virus interferes with a Russian mobster's business dealings, triggering a chain of events that eventually involves a crew of Jihadists, the US military, Britain's MI6, and even some heavily-armed families from Montana.

Like I said, there's a lot going on here.

I won't get into any more details of the story, for the sake of those of you who want to read it, but it's certainly an engaging yarn. To be entirely honest, though, it felt a bit too action-packed. The story was certainly a bit less cerebral than other novels I've read by Stephenson, and at times read more like a Tom Clancy novel than what Stephenson fans might be used to. It's a fun read nonetheless, and I can particularly recommend it on the merits of the fascinating virtual world Stephenson created for the novel.

This is truly where the book shines. Not only does Stephenson provide an incredible level of detail on the inner workings of T'Rain, the book even goes into great detail on how the lore, geography, and economy of the world were designed and built prior to the principal events of the story. This last component - the economy - is of particular note.

Gold farming is a contentious topic that's come up before on MP, and is broadly considered a problem for MMOs. But in the world of T'Rain it's not only par for the course, but a deeply integrated element of the game world's economy. Building upon a geologically realistic substrate in which the terrain of T'Rain can be mined for precious metals, miners can trade the fruits of their labor for in-game items or, through the services of a moneychanger, turn their gold into real-world cash, thus removing that gold from the in-game economy. The system works both ways, such that players who don't want to mine can gain virtual gold with a swipe of their credit cards. The difference between T'Rain and existing MMOs is that this trading of virtual and real money is baked right into gameplay, governed by exchange rates and even accounted for in the game narrative (when money is removed from the game to be turned into cash, for example, the virtual coins are destroyed as offerings to the gods of the game world).

In the interest of space and giving readers of the book something to look forward to, I won't go into further detail here, but rest assured that Stephenson went to great pains to make the workings of T'Rain's economic system plausible. It's a fascinating look at how MMOs might take the problem of gold farming and turn it into something lucrative. Now of course there are many more questions to address here, both legal and methodological, if we are to understand how realistic such a virtual economy might be, and I'll admit that I'm not the best to address them, as virtual currencies are not my area of expertise. But those of you who are more comfortable with the topic, please sound off in the comments. And whether or not gold mining in particular attracts your attention, give REAMDE a look. If you have even the slightest interest in virtual worlds, it's sure to be a great read.

Neal Stephenson's REAMDE by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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