Writing under his real world name in the Alphaville Herald after he broke the story, Ludlow raised the question, “What kinds of lessons were we teaching Ashley and other younger players about political life?” Yes, he wrote, the Sims Online was a game, but “nothing is ever just a game. Games have consequences. Games also give us an opportunity to break out of the roles and actions that we might be forced into in real life. I decided to take advantage of that opportunity. I freed my game.”Reading through the reader responses in the Alphaville Herald, it is clear that, for many, the stolen election forced them to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of democracy. The odd coincidence that many of those who tried and were unable to vote came from Palm Beach, FL, invited comparison to the dispute in Florida four years ago. Ashley, a John Kerry supporter, evokes the specter of Bush-Cheney and the “stolen election” while she has herself been called a “crybaby” and compared to Al Gore. As one participant exclaimed, “Where is the Alphaville Supreme Court when you really need them?”
Even in play, American democracy feels broken.
It is not surprising, given the drama unfolded everyday in our real-world newspapers, that cynicism about democratic processes has spread into the games we play or the fantasy roles we adopt online. Will the players leave the game disillusioned, or more involved with political life? Is the online game world a distraction from “serious” activism? Is that even the right question to ask, given that many of the key players here will not be able to vote this November and would probably not be taking seriously if they directed these same energies toward politics in their own communities?
Before we write this all off as a “learning experience,” we should ask some more fundamental questions about the ways that game worlds do or do not model ideal online democracies. For starters, I wonder what it will mean that many young people first experiment with democracy not through any civic institution but through what is the virtual equivalent of a shopping mall. What happens to free speech in a corporate-controlled environment, where the profit motive can undo any decision made by the citizenry and where the company can pull the plug whenever sales figures warrant? What happens to free press when the town newspaper editor can get thrown off-line in a dispute with corporate management? What happens to notions of “character” or reputation when a candidate can change his or her identity at will and may well be playing multiple roles in the process? What happens to rules of law when one of the candidates codes the program determining the election results? And can you have a social contract when nobody is quite sure who’s role-playing and to what degree?
Can’t we just let these people play in peace? After all, even with political corruption thrown into the mix, The Sims Online is relatively wholesome in comparison to what goes on in most other online games. Yet, it isn’t an accident that after Florida 2000, we now play at corrupt elections, just as after September 11, many people built amateur games where you could blow up Bin Laden. Nothing is ever just a game.
The healthiest thing that has come out of the Alphaville election is that people, online and off, are talking about what happened and through this conversation, they are asking questions about the future of democracy. If we are taking a game too seriously, it is because these questions have not been taken seriously enough in the offline world.