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Playing Politics in Alphaville

Disputed elections. Candidate mudslinging. Palm Beach voting irregularities. What happens when our online communities mirror reality too closely?

The Alphaville presidential elections attracted national and even international media attention. National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation hosted a joint appearance of the two candidates, complete with an array of pundits pontificating about cyberpolitics and virtual economies. The best coverage came from the Alphaville Herald, the small town newspaper serving the needs of the virtual community. The Herald is run by Peter Ludlow, a professor of philosophy and linguistics at the University of Michigan. In the game realm, Ludlow goes by the moniker Urizenus.

Alphaville is one of the oldest and most densely populated towns in the Sims Online, a massively multiplayer version of the most successful game franchise of all time. The game’s creator, Will Wright, has often said that he did not have any idea what would happen when he put the Sims online. He knew players would become deeply invested in their characters and their communities. He could not have projected that organized crime would run rampant, that community leaders would organize against con-artists and prostitutes, or that the elections would devolve into mudslinging and mutual accusations of manipulation.

Much of what has been written about cyberdemocracy has focused on structures and procedures, elected official and organized political parties. But the Alphaville elections raise larger issues about the culture of democracy. Underlying any democratic system must be some notion of social contract between the participants and some sense that their participation is meaningful. And those are the things that were at risk as the drama surrounding the Alphaville presidential elections unfolded.

When the votes were counted, the incumbent, Mr. President (the avatar of Arthur Baynes, a 21-year-old Delta Airlines ticket agent from Richmond, VA) had beaten Ashley Richardson (the avatar of Laura McKnight, a middle schooler from Palm Beach, FL), 469 to 411. Ashley has cried foul play, contending that she knows of more than 100 supporters who were not allowed to vote.

Mr. President’s defenders initially claimed that the undercounting resulted from a bug in the system that made it hard for America Online users to accept the cookies used on the election website. And in any case, they say, many of Ashley’s supporters were not actually “citisims” of Alphaville. Mr. President argues that he campaigned among hardcore participants in the game, while Ashley brought her off-line friends and family members (many of whom are not subscribers) into the process. While the Alphaville constitution makes clear who is eligible to be a candidate, it doesn’t specify who is permitted to vote. Nobody actually “lives” in Alphaville, of course, but many call the online community “home.” Should one have to interact there for a specific period of time to earn the right to vote, or should voting be open to everybody-including those who have never before visited the community?

Some argue that participants are taking things way too seriously, confusing a game with real life. The Alphaville Herald’s Urizenus concedes that Mr. President may simply be role-playing the part of a corrupt politician and that he himself may simply be acting the part of a “muckraking newspaper editor who likes to root out virtual corruption in virtual elections.” Others see Mr. President as someone deeply committed to bringing good government to the online community. It was Mr. President, after all, who had first proposed and developed this virtual government, and he had done some good things during his first administration.

There are certainly signs that the participants didn’t always take things too seriously. The first online debate ended abruptly at 9:00 p.m. when Ashley claimed she was feeling ill. Mr. President suggested that the timing made him suspicious that she simply wanted to watch the Sopranos; the middle-schooler later confessed that she had to finish her homework. Ashley’s campaign slogan was “Everybody Wang Chung Tonight,” suggesting that having fun may be Alphaville’s highest social good. Yet, if this is play, it is hard play-the kind of play that emerges from serious investments and that shapes real world understandings.

Important issues are at stake here, both in the world of the game and the world beyond the game. Within the game, the candidates represent different perspectives on what would be best for their community; the choice of leaders would affect the way players experience the game world. Ashley wanted to set up information booths at the city limits to warn newcomers about some of the ways scammers might trick them out of their cash. It is significant that one of the leading candidates here will be five years too young to vote in the actual presidential elections this fall and that participants in the online debates keep accusing each other of playing the “age card.” Consider what it means to exercise power in a virtual world when you have so little control over what happens to you in your everyday life.

The age of at least some of the participants invites comparisons with older traditions of student government, which had emerged from a belief that the culture of democracy needed to be instilled into the everyday life of children. But Alphaville has an estimated population of 7,000 and its government employs more than 150 people (mostly in law enforcement). The virtual town’s leaders have to negotiate with Electronic Arts, the company that creates and markets the Sims franchise, to shape the policies that impact their community. And the debates and elections occur in the glare of a national media spotlight.

The situation blew up when the Alphaville Herald published what it claims is a transcript of an Internet chat session between Mr. President and mobster J.C. Soprano (the avatar of a player who presumably lives a law-abiding life in the real world). The chat suggested that the election process may have been compromised from the very beginning and that Mr. President may be the silent partner of the organized crime family. If this was play, then not everyone was playing by the same rules.

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.

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