Three Paths to Democracy Online

The Sims is one of the best-selling video games of all time. It may best be described as a kind of interactive doll house, where the player creates characters that do real life things: eat, sleep, work, watch television, fall in and out of love, start a family and other things that are essential parts of our lives. For a video game, there is surprisingly little gameplay, it is more like a life simulator. In 2002 Sims Online launched, a virtual world where players could interact with one another. The substance of the content was noncontroversial, just like the original game (or maybe not: The Sims does have a subversive subtext with same sex marriages and gay adoptions). But regardless of the friendly theme and pleasant design, familiar patterns of social dynamics soon emerged. Some of it nice, such as car-pooling and garden parties. But also unpleasant phenomena: bullying and even, by extension, virtual “murder” (where players were pushed to delete their characters). Mean players would crash the nice players’ barbecue parties and break things. Some spoke of a “Sims Mafia”. Then something peculiar happened. A virtual vigilante force emerged. Nice players organised and spent their game time defending innocent players from the hooligans. A spontaneous rule of law had established.

Online-worlds like Sims Online, World of Warcraft, Second Live, Eve Online and others are mirror images of our society. Many phenomena from “meatspace” also occur online, but the form may be different. This attracts the interest of academics, like the outbreak of the plague Corrupted Blood bin World of Warcraft in 2005, which killed thousands of player characters. The occurrence was studied by epidemiologists and many concluded that by studying (yes, there are more cases) outbreaks in online-worlds, researchers can take away important learnings applicable to real-world disease. Blizzard – the company that owns and operates World of Warcraft – tried to limit the outbreak by order of quarantine, but in the end had to re-start the servers where disease spread (certainly not an option in real-life!). In this case, the server-owner functioned as authority.

China has many popular online-games unfamiliar to Western players, but with similar functionality as our hits. One of the more popular is Legend of Mir. In June 2005, a crime was committed in Legend of Mir III with horrible consequences. The player Zhu Caoyan had borrowed a powerful item, a so-called dragon-sabre, by another player, Qiu Chengwei. This sabre only existed as a virtual object in the game world. Caoyan sold the dragon-sabre without telling its rightful owner and kept the money to himself. When Chengwei confronted Caoyan, he was ignored and instead turned to the regular Chinese police who – unsurprisingly – refused to investigate the case. Chengwei then resorted to private justice, sought out Caoyan in real-life and stabbed him to death. In this case there was no rule of law of any kind, with disastrous result.

These three cases illustrate the question of who should be responsible for law and order online. Is it the players themselves, like in Sims Online? Or is it the service-provider, like in WoW? Or is it the “offline”-police? Since the Legend of Mir-murder, virtual police units have been set up in South Korea, China, and elsewhere. But it is those who control the servers and code who have the absolute power, who can change the laws of nature in the game or switch it off entirely. At the same time, online-worlds are no different from other digital services in that users have a strong sense of ownership of the forum, service or online-space, and happily organise to put pressure on the company that runs it.

There seems to be three distinct paths to democracy and public functions that are similar to real-life institutions in online-worlds, but it is too early to tell which of these (or combination of them) that will be most successful. It is fair to say that online-worlds can be a sort of petri-dish for experiment in digital societal functions, which gives hints to how public life and government can be organised in other parts of the net.

Per Strömbäck
Editor Netopia