Photo: Elu One/Flickr
An Online Virtual World Tried to Build Democracy, and Things Got Complicated
New Statesman

An Online Virtual World Tried to Build Democracy, and Things Got Complicated

By Photo: Elu One/Flickr

 This piece originally appeared on newstatesman.com.

The arrival of the internet brought with it unprecedented means of human connection, and the most extraordinary of all of these can be found within the worlds of online games. Here, in simulated landscapes, people meet to quest, hunt or simply be together. Known as “massively multiplayer online games,” these virtual worlds live on after a player shuts down the computer and churn away awaiting his or her return. At the height of its popularity, in 2010, one such title, World of Warcraft, had more than 12 million “inhabitants,” whose monthly subscription fees earned its creators more than $5 million a day.

Eve Online is a smaller virtual state, home to roughly half a million people, who log on to barter, fight and collaborate with one another daily. What it lacks in population, it makes up for in complexity and texture. This is a science-fiction video game of unprecedented scale and ambitiona cosmos composed of more than 7,500 interconnected star and wormhole systemsthat has grown into a huge and fascinating social experiment since its launch in 2003.

As in life, one’s initial experience of Eve is dictated largely by the circumstances of one’s home. Space is divided three ways. “High security” is, contrary to the term’s associations, the ideal place for space cadets. It is heavily policed, so it is here that fresh recruits will find sanctuary from the pirates who roam “low security,” a more perilous patch of cosmos where newcomers’ spaceships are routinely captured and sold. “Zero space,” the third territory, is the galactic Wild West. Anything goes here, among the buckshot nether stars; players may join forces, build empires and fight rival factions to stake their claim to entire solar systems and the precious resources they contain.

High-security dwellers can keep a low profile as they eke out an honest living as a miner or trader, earning money with which to improve their virtual ship or dwelling. The zero-spacers, by contrast, throw themselves into a world of intrigue, engaging in dynamic, player-led plot lines, conspiracies and intergalactic heists. In one notorious incident a few years ago, members of a mercenary group worked for twelve months to infiltrate a powerful in-game corporation, taking on jobs within its structure and ingratiating themselves with its staff. Then, in one orchestrated attack, the group seized the company’s assets, ambushed its female chief executive, blew up her ship and delivered her frozen corpse to the client who had paid for the assassination. Not only was this an act of astounding co-ordination but it had realworld value, too: the virtual assets seized were worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Few other video games allow for the full unpredictability of human interaction in this way. For this reason, Eve’s population is diverse and enthusiastic. However, for its developer, the Icelandic CCP Games, this presents a problem. How do you build the galaxy in a way that keeps everyone happyfrom the day-tripping explorer to the moneygrubbing space pirate? Its solution is the Council of Stellar Management (CSM), a democratically elected body of players whose job it is to represent the interests of the game’s population to its creators.

Each year scores of would-be player-politicians stand for the CSM. Just 14 of them are elected. Every six months CCP flies the successful candidates to its headquarters in Reykjavik for three days of intensive debate.

During that time the council meets CCP’s inhouse economist, Eyjólfur Guðmundsson, and hears about new features planned for the Eve galaxy. If they want, they can contest these proposals in the interests of their electorate. Minutes of each meeting are kept and made public afterwards, so there is full transparency over whether a councillor is making good on campaign promises.

“Council members can have very different ambitions and concerns, depending on which part of space they hail from,” explains Ned Coker, CCP’s senior PR officer. “You may have someone who lives in the galaxy’s outer reaches, who will have a very different viewpoint to those that live in a more centralised area.” Likewise, would-be councillors often campaign on specific issues with the promise that, should they be elected, they will promote the interests of those who voted for them.

 “You may have someone who lives in the galaxy’s outer reaches, who will have a very different viewpoint to those that live in a more centralised area.”

The run-up to the annual election reflects the way that political parties work in real life. “Candidates come with their own platforms, create propaganda and do a lot of mustering, both in the game and outside it,” Coker says. This year Dave Whitelaw, an oil-rig worker from Thurso on the far north coast of Scotland who makes an Eve Online podcast called Sonic’s Ring, attempted to interview every candidate in the final ballot for it.

“Candidates fall into three categories,” he says. “There are those who stand on a single issue. Then others who champion a specific play style such as piracy or industry, or who represent a large group of alliances. Finally, there are those who would act purely as a communication membrane between CCP and the players.” As in politics, lesser-known candidates must put more hours into campaigning than more prominent ones.

In May, after months of canvassing, both inside the game and across social media, the line-up of the eighth CSM was announced. It was the fifth time that Robert Woodhead, a 54-year-old from North Carolina in the United States, had been elected. These days Woodhead campaigns on his track record, although that doesn’t preclude doing grassroots leafleting. Last year he harvested thousands of player names from the game’s web forums and sent emails to all, encouraging them to vote when the polls opened.

“I view the elections as good, clean political fun, even a part of the actual game experience,” he says. “You are being elected to be an advocate, not a legislator.” That advocacy, he feels, is remarkably effective. “I have watched the CSM evolve into a very useful tool for influencing the company,” he says. “More and more people at CCP have come to realise that our feedback and advice is tremendously valuable and that we do help shape the game.”

CCP is a business not a nation and, as such, has the final say when it comes to choosing whether or not to act on the CSM’s lobbying. But the council is a microcosm of the game’s populace, in which members hold significant sway. Ignoring their petitions could damage the business.

In 2011 CCP held an emergency meeting with the CSM following in-game riots, which resulted from the developer deciding to take a more aggressive approach to virtual selling. Disgruntled players believed that the introduction of micro-transactionswhich allowed players to purchase virtual clothing, accessories and mementos for real money (including a $70 monocle)was evidence that the game was moving in an unwelcome direction. “The riots happened because CCP prioritised its vision over the needs of customers,” Woodhead explains. “They lost sight of the fundamental reason for Eve’s successthe depth and complexity of the social relationships that it spawns.”

The emergency summit demonstrated CCP’s commitment to listening to the players and showed that the CSM wields power in representing the views of the game’s population. “Some people think the CSM is a PR stunt,” Coker says. “There will always be conspiracy theorists. They think we fly them over here, get them drunk and tell them what to say. But that incident showed the system works. Players not only felt like the CSM was working hard for them – after all, they all put their real jobs and lives on hold for a weekbut also they held us to task.”

Even though the CSM is more of a lobbying group than a governing body, it is not immune to corruption. Councillors are privy to forthcoming changes in the game and some members have used this information to their advantage. In 2009 one councillor, Adam Ridgway, bought items worth thousands of dollars to stockpile ahead of a design change to the game that would vastly increase their value. As these virtual items carry significant worth in the real world, CCP closely monitors the actions both of CSM members and of its own staff. It even has an internal affairs department that follows players to ensure they are not using insider information for personal gain. Ridgway stepped down from his position on the CSM following his indiscretion.

More and more sociologists and economists are studying Eve Online, viewing it as a microcosm of the social forces that drive our reality. Its populace, when set against Britain’s increasingly disaffected electorate, is energised and politically engaged. There is a belief that the CSM can have a meaningful effect on the game’s world and that it is therefore important for players to elect the right candidates to represent their interests.

In this virtual world, players can express dissatisfaction with ineffectual council members more easily. “There have been people on council whose inaction has magnified calls for them to be unseated,” says Coker. “And we have the bounty system as a final recourse.” This allows disgruntled players to place a price on a CSM member’s head. “It’s a very effective way to make your political disaffection known,” he says. If ever there are plans to apply lessons learned from studying Eve to the British political system, perhaps we should start with bounties.

Simon Parkin writes on gaming for the Guardian and The New Yorker.

 This piece originally appeared on newstatesman.com.

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