A Radical Game

Readers may be wondering what has happened to my grand plans to launch a grid-wide insurrection to bring democracy to Second Life. I haven’t forgotten about it completely, but I have been distracted by some real-life political activity; I realised that if I had time to spend on agitation in an imaginary world, then I had no real excuse for dodging my responsibilities in my local community, where the issues are rather more pressing.

I was also a bit discouraged when I read Annabelle Boyd Jones’s B.A. thesis (OK, when I read the abstract of Annabelle Boyd Jones’s B.A. thesis) The Disconnect Between Journalism and Governance; A Critical Analysis of the Interaction of Journalism and Governance in the Virtual World Second Life, in which she concludes that journalism (and what is SLS if not citizen-journalism?) has had “negligible influence over the structure and direction of governance”. Ms Jones was awarded first class honours, so I guess her work is fairly robust, though I felt her selection of SL sources was a little restrictive, taking in the usual suspects like the Herald and New World Notes, plus the now-defunct AvaStar and Reuters SL, though also Your 2nd Place and Second Thoughts, the latter amusingly characterised as “incendiary”.

On the other hand… My re-engagement with local politics isn’t entirely attributable to guilt-tripping; thinking about democracy and radicalism in the context of Second Life reminded me how stimulating political activity can be, and primed me to get back into it. I ended up re-reading most of Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution, which really catches the excitement of the times, as the old order collapsed and a new world of limitless possibilities opened up. (John Reed‘s Ten Days that Shook the World, and Warren Beatey’s epic film Reds, based on Reed’s life, are equally inspiring.)

It can be argued that Second Life is a similarly fresh political landscape, and the challenges faced by anyone trying to build a progressive movement on the grid would be comparable to those in front of the Bolsheviks as they sought to galvanise the population of Russia around a new ideology in 1917. It would follow that, just as there are lessons for revolutionaries today in the events of October, agitating in SL might teach us something about organising in real life. Role-playing revolutionary games in Second Life could provide the intellectual space where ideas about engaging people with radical politics can be tried out and refined, before being fed back into offline experience.

For example, I was thinking about how I might go about recruiting members to an SL Communist Party, and naturally I fell back on my fairly extensive experience of doing similar things in the real world. Thinking about how to translate this on to the grid forced me to consider what worked and what didn’t, what were the really essential steps and what was just habit, what was outdated and what still applied. All this was still in my mind the other day when I met with some people to talk about what kind of intervention we can mount around the forthcoming UK General Election, and my contribution to that discussion was certainly informed by the thoughts I’d had about Second Life. Time will tell how useful these grid-derived insights are going to be of course, and the process would undoubtedly have been more valuable had I started it about a year ago, so that I could have gone through a few iterations of virtual party building and generated more feedback, but it felt as if I had been able to look at things from a new angle.

Does this mean that I am softening on my immersionist position and coming round to a more augmentalist viewpoint? Not really, because I still think that what happens on the grid has no direct significance outside of the game world, and that no matter how good a virtual simulation might be, the lessons learned only become valuable if they are applied to action in the real world.

The idea that games can be useful in preparing us for more serious affairs is hardly new of course; it’s something we have been doing in one form or another since the dawn of humanity. Wellington said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton, (though Orwell thought that the opening battles of all subsequent wars had been lost there.) Perhaps the outcome of future conflicts will be decided on the sims of Second Life.

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