Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Appraising political second lives

Mark Warner is one of the many candidates competing for the Democratic Party nomination in the US currently. He is also attempting to build a virtual town hall within second life following his appearance within the MMO Second Life as a guest speaker where he flew on stage superman-like (see clip below)

While it could be just a stunt, Warner argues that is not the reason for his appearance and his enthusiasm for developing the tools. He argues that through web technology "distances and time differences vanish. It will allow us to reach people through a whole new medium. Social technologies can be great tools for political change, and virtual worlds like Second Life might be the next tool for engaging people in the real world democratic process". There are positives, it is cheap and efficient, it is non-mediated and, providing other users believe it is the real Mark Warner controlling the avatar, enables two-way communication and the building of relationships. Indeed the comments on the one game-politics site are largely not critical of Warner's appearance, though there are stylistic comments, but asking for substance: is this a new audience getting interested in politics?

There is a danger however. The Second Life environments are similar to the Sims game. You are able to create an avatar, or basically a computer generated person, you are able to control (Mark Warner's is shown left). The whole idea of this is that any user can be anyone else they like, usually this is enhancing their personality or physique but the avatars can also be based around real people. Hence there may well be user-generated replicas popping up that mock the real politician and their party. As one poster comments "imagine people wandering around looking like presidential candidates, swilling beer and staggering through strip clubs".

There are huge questions here then. The extent to which real appearances offer insights about the real person, or are perceived to, given that second life is about creating a false, even better, self. Equally, will users interact with a politician once the novelty wears off, or will they even believe it is the real person operating the avatar and not an aide. Finally is the perception of reality and believability. Just as a hypothetical scenario, if there is the real Mark Warner being the perfect president to be, plus a number of fake Mark Warners behaving badly, which will be seen as the representation of reality and which will move from second life and into media reports. The fakes are uncontrollable, for all we know someone out here may have created a character like any of us and may be making us do unspeakable things within a virtual world; but in politics such stories can control an agenda and at some point second and first lives may collide: will be for the good or the bad?

1 comment:

Nobody Fugazi said...

I'd like to think that people create avatars in a way which they would like to be viewed by others - that is the most telling thing.

That politicians wish to appear as themselves is branding - just like Bruce Willis and his recent interview in Second Life. Branding is a de facto part of politics, but of course it always makes one wonder why for Ms. America there are 50 young and attractive female candidates and for the President of the United States we get 2 old men. And caricature remains a powerful thing...

The power of political campaigns in Second Life does not lie in branding in the sense of appearance - though that is a factor. What will determine success in Second Life is how one deals with the community and reacts to the community. It is an extension beyond the blogosphere, which in the last election was the failure of the candidate who had invested the most heavily in the blogosphere.