Avatars and Politics: Using Second Life for political activism?

Avatar Politics: The Applications of Second Life is an interesting post in a blog run by the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet on how, in the US at least, Second Life offers a novel medium through which one can animate a political constituency.

The post links to an article by Nancy Scola titled Avatar Politics: The Social Applications of Second Life. Given that’s Second Life, and the possibilities of the technology behind SL and similar MMORPG‘s to help in real world scenarios as wide ranging as peace negotiations and humanitarian relief to disaster training simulations Nancy’s article is particularly interesting for fleshing out the (to date embryonic) potential of SL as a vehicle / catalyst of and for political participation.

As she notes:

But how do we operating in the political space make an investment of time and money in Second Life worth our while?

First, a caveat. Though perhaps not the most satisfying answer, the most honest one is this: we
just don’t know yet. We haven’t yet boiled down Second Life’s best practices or figured out
how to inoculate ourselves from failing in the world. But we can’t fairly expect ourselves to.
Second Life debuted in 2002. At a comparable point in the evolution of the World Wide Web,
the world was still wrangling with just how to work a hyperlink. Still, the richness of the Second
Life environment and some early experiences and experiments do give us some indications of
how we might move ahead.

She goes on to note:

Blogs and chat rooms lack the physicality, immediacy, and nuance of Second Life. Using those tools, you can’t whisper to your neighbor, show loyalty (or pique) by hunkering down in one part of the room or another. Second Life’s combination of real-time interaction and physical embodiment create a space unlike anything else online.

Taking lessons from previous Second Life experiments,the author concludes that the metaverse offers rich possibilities for political campaigning. The problem with this approach, of course, is the understanding of politics. If all politics is local, then it will take further research to explore how, say in Sri Lanka (even if we were to one day have the bandwidth required to play Second Life decently) how issues such as caste, which is a huge factor in determining real world political aspirants from a particular region, are reflected in online worlds. Furthermore, our understanding of politics varies from place to place, region to region. A political model such as that in the US that lends itself to the nature of Second Life may be, as the country feels it is, exceptional. More complex political and voting relationships between the politician and citizens may be beyond the ability of Second Life to replicate, help or strengthen. Again, of the 2.6 million “residents” of Second Life, it is debate how many are actually active users (I’m not) and of even that percentage, how many really give a toss about politics. It may even be the case, which the author does not explore, that Second Life is largely populated by those apathetic to real world concerns and real world politics.

I don’t see Second Life playing any significant role in Sri Lankan politics for several decades. However, an aspect that I do see MMORPG’s such as Second Life as holding great potential is in the realm of peace negotiations, humanitarian disaster relief simulations and online dispute resolution (ODR). These areas, that are already heavily dependent on communications that are increased mediated through the internet, lend themselves to the virtual worlds in Second Life – that can recreate real life scenarios, help participants work through future scenarios, help stakeholders collaboratively explore solutions to problems, provide the space to interact virtually after real world meetings, secure an online space that’s always available, and secure, for confidential meetings etc.

As Nancy avers:

Second Life in particular and the metaverse as a whole are very much in their infancies. The future of the virtual world in the political context will likely be a road paved with more failures than successes. We do not yet know what we are doing in the virtual world, and that ignorance will likely show in our efforts. But with the barriers to entry so low and the potential enjoyment so great, those failures will be at the same time minimally painful and highly educational. Consider how Second Life might complement your political mission.

Of course, a political mission is not necessarily linked to party politics. It can include deeply political issues such as building peace, responding to disasters, designing online dispute resolution systems and constructing virtual negotiations processes. Nancy’s right – it’s time we started to think about the ways in which Second Life, and games like it, can help us address the challenges we face in peacebuilding and conflict resolution / transformation today.

The Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet (IPDI) is part of the Graduate School of Political Management of The George Washington University. Its mission is to promote the use of the Internet and new communication technologies in politics to enhance democratic values, encourage citizen participation and improve governance, at home and abroad; in short, to “democratize democracy.”

IPDI conducts research that anticipates and interprets trends; publishes studies and guidelines that that show candidates, public officials and activists how to make the best use of the new communication tools; and holds seminars and conferences that advocate best practices, teach new skills and allow for the national and international exchange of ideas on the democratizing uses of the Internet and other new technologies.

For my other posts on the potential and possibilities of using Second Life, check out the following:
Second Life for Humanitarian Aid and Peacebuilding?
Strong Angel Island videos – From the Strong Angel III sim for Second Life
A Second Life for Journalism?
Second Life – Business, ODR, Language and Peace
Online Violence : Take 2

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