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Wagner James Au Headshot

All Politics is Virtual

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Will the next election season's big caucus battle look like a videogame? Web strategist Michael Whitney recently revealed the contents of a Hilary Clinton campaign survey on the Huffington Post, and among the usual questions about political leanings and election contributions was this seemingly odd query:

Which of the following have you visited or played online?

Sim City

Second Life

Sims

None of the above

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Gamers know that neither The Sims or Sim City are actually played online and are 8+ years old -- suggesting that Senator Clinton's researchers probably need get up to speed. But the inclusion of SecondLife.com was uniquely interesting to me, because the 3D user-created virtual world has been used as a campaign platform by real world politicians. In 2006, when he was seriously contemplating a presidential run, I co-hosted the avatar-based appearance of former Virginia Governor Mark Warner in Second Life, and there've been countless virtual whistle stops since then.

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Most of these were buzz-inducing one-offs attempting to leverage a recent media hype wave over Second Life, but something more seems to be going on. "We wouldn't think anything of going to a neighborhood headquarters where there's 400 people," as Internet-era campaign guru Joe Trippi told ABC World News last January. "Why not go to your headquarters in Second Life and have conversations with 500,000 people?" Trippi knew the current hardcore user base of Second Life (it's about 550k) suggesting that he's been following the world closely.

Now Joe Trippi may have revolutionized political campaigning in the Internet era, but does it really makes sense to think that virtual worlds might be the next big Net-driven thing to sit politics since MeetUp.com? Probably not this election cycle, but here's some reasons why it's something worth thinking about for 2012, and certainly 2016.

The Internet as we've known it, two-dimensions and word-centric, is quickly changing in character, in great part due to virtual worlds. The online roleplaying games World of Warcraft boasts 10 million subscribers, but it's only one of many successful examples of a virtual world, what Neal Stephenson coined "the Metaverse" and what geeks call an MMO (for "massively multiuser online world".) In any case, half of Warcraft's players are based in China, where the government monitors their playtime, so an elf-driven democracy movement is not likely to emerge anytime soon. In the West, however, Finland-based Habbo Hotel has about 9 million regular users; the US-based Club Penguin and Gaia Online, about 5 million each. All three of the above worlds, it should be noted, are dominated by teens and pre-adolescents. Joined to these in coming years will be a veritable galaxy of new worlds, and for this reason, some experts are even more bullish on the near future: renowned technology analyst firm Gartner, Inc., for example, projected that 80% of all active Internet users "would have a second life (though not necessarily a Second Life)" by 2011. This kind of activity is taking time away from what would previously be spent watching TV, or even browsing the traditional 2D Web. In the next decade, these tens of millions of young MMO players will enter adulthood and voter eligibility, and chances are they won't be impressed by politicians who don't campaign in their virtual district.

But what's so special about virtual worlds? Aren't they just for games and light socialization?  Largely yes -- but then, so are neighborhood sports bars, and yet politicians stop by to awkwardly swap jokes and share non-alcoholic beers. The advantage with MMOs is how they simulate a sense of presence that doesn't require going on road trips, finding adequate meeting spaces, and all the other aggravations usually associated with grass roots campaigning. The sense of presence comes from a trick of the brain that makes us associate the avatars we control with our selves. The connection is so profound, Stanford researcher Nick Yee found that Second Life users make sure their avatars maintain the same level of eye contact and personal distance that they would in the real world.

In other words, a virtual meet-up space depicted graphically with connected computers, instead of cramped living rooms. Groups like DailyKos are experimenting with this in Second Life, often as a virtual adjunct to a real world convention, for those who couldn't attend in person. Europeans are probably ahead of the curve here, with numerous official embassies and political headquarters from the EU based in Second Life. Last election in France, for example, Socialist candidate Segolene Royal sponsored a very popular HQ for supporters in SL.

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(Though it was assailed by supporters of far right extremist Jean Marie Le Pen, whose own noxious Front National built a Second Life base of their own--which was in turn attacked by anti-fascists armed with virtual machine guns and exploding pigs. Yes, really.)

Beyond the potential as a political medium, some activists are going virtual because, ironically enough, that's where they might best effect real world change. That's because numerous government agencies and major corporations are using Second Life and other MMOs for marketing, research, and development. Which is why 1800+ international union members recently descended on the SL campus of IBM, waving signs and protesting a paycut levied against its Italian employees. (When IBM/Italy's CEO stepped down shortly afterward, the organizers claimed victory.) So don't be surprised if next season's campaign mailings come with a metaverse address.

Wagner James Au is the author of The Making of Second Life: Notes from the New World (HarperCollins) and edits the blog New World Notes

(nwn.blogs.com). Pictured: Avatar-based caricature of Senator Clinton by Christophe Hugo (www.myspace.com/christophehugo);

Governor Warner's appearance in Second Life, and the battle at Front National headquarters, courtesy of nwn.blogs.com.