Edward Castronova, author of “Synthetic Worlds” and the upcoming “Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality,” spoke at Georgetown University yesterday on the role video games play in society. His research focuses on massively multiplayer online games like EverQuest and World of Warcraft, which differentiate themselves from normal video games in their persistence (the game doesn’t stop just because a person is not playing) and because other, “real” people from around the world are playing the game at the same time.

The popularity of these games – and virtual identities in general – raises some interesting questions. For example, Gartner predicted in April that by 2011, 80% of active internet users will have a “second life” online (although not necessarily in Linden Lab’s online world, Second Life). This suggests there will be a significant move of social networks from the real world to the virtual world. We’re already seeing this phenomenon through social networking sites and in online games like Warcraft, where friends can play together even if they’re not in the same room, city, or even country. The importance of geographic location will continue to diminish as this technology moves forward.

While the breaking down of geographic barriers will have many positive effects in terms of business and personal contacts, it also raises concerns in relation to the sterilization of interpersonal communication on several levels. As early as 2001, the Pew Internet Project released a report showing that many teenagers preferred instant messaging over communicating over the phone. With text messaging, social networking sites and online gaming added into the mix, today people have as many ways to communicate via text as they do verbally. And as we see in Pew’s latest memo on parent and teen internet use, teens today are more connected than ever: 72% of teens have a desktop computer, 25% have a laptop computer and 63% have a cell phone. In addition, 89% of teens say the internet and gadgets make their lives easier, which suggests a continued upward trend in use in future years.

So are we witnessing the end of interpersonal communication as we know it? Will people by the millions seek refuge in synthetic worlds so as to avoid the harsh reality of real life and because they prefer to communicate virtually rather than through more traditional methods? Castronova would probably say yes, with the caveat that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Communication has been changing as rapidly as the technology that allows it to change, and will continue to change as more and more people move at least a part of themselves online. For him, it’s about enjoying and embracing the game – for both its academic research and its consumer appeal – as it evolves.