Technological Revolutions

I am a nube. In Second Life, I spend a good deal of time standing in one place awkwardly moving my mouse and clicking, desperately spinning my scroll wheel trying to get my view back centered on myself. Somehow, I’m looking down from the clouds, and then in the next instant I’m zoomed in to the side of a bank examining the wood grain of digital shiplap from an inch away. When I’m inside buildings and I try to look around at the audience, somehow I end up outside, stuck staring at the party through tinted windows. Everything’s dim as I watch the other figures gyrate and flex with their programmatic perfect, looping dance moves (someone’s got the Chicken Noodle Soup dance activated in their inventory!) I am the watcher on the outside, frustrated and ashamed as my avatar stands as still as Chief Bromden.

I am, I admit, not even totally comfortable using the term avatar. The word’s entomology represents a gross change, a complete reversal in meaning. In Hindu, an avatar is the earthly embodiment of Lord Vishnu. Think about that, it’s like we’re calling Lara Croft Buddha. Second Life, the virtual world where thousands of people run around as rainbow colored, porn star-proportioned Jesuses. “Hey, I just got a new Gimp Jesus!” “Awesome, I bought leather pants and a bikini-top for my Jesus.” I’m not Christian; this doesn’t bother me, but I can imagine there are people who it would be insulted.

We have a nasty habit in this country of confusing the sacred and the profane. Every time I see shoppers lined up for Black Friday Midnight Sales, I think of pilgrims at a shrine. The people in sleeping bags, camping on the street to buy the first iPhones were like temporary ascetics, forsaking worldly comfort to be transfigured by the state of the art. Celebrity worship is at such a level of grotesquery I don’t even need to use anecdotes. We’ve all seen fans crying at the sight of musicians, hands outstretched across the metal barricade as if touching the flesh of a star would cure leprosy. We seek their advice as if fame makes one a sage, as if singing songs for money teaches one the secrets to end world poverty, and making action movies entitles a man to govern. I stand on the subway and look around me; a Hasid reads the Torah next to a hipster reading a tabloid next to a stockbroker reading the Wall Street Journal.

I am, of late, obsessed with economics. It is a passion similar, I think, to the study of gravity. All around us, an invisible force that virtually no one understands affects every person every moment of every day. There is nothing that can be done that cannot be bought or sold. Every human action and emotion has been harnessed to the economy, and when our backs ache few even realize why. We are in the ancient days, and the holy books have not been translated for the masses; the priests mediate the divine.

How many people have any idea where money comes from? Why does inflation rise and fall? What does the Federal Reserve do? Statistics are like stained glass windows showing us the Stations of the Cross, revealing symbols of ecstasy and misery in two-dimensional false clarity. This is starting to sound like a rant, but it is serious. What fool would gamble without knowing what the cards signify? Who would play chess with Death without understanding how the pieces move? Virtually everyone, apparently.

Games. We play games because play is, in fact, one of our most basic human functions. We love games because they simplify and captivate, because the magic circle is as intoxicating as fine spirits. And, because games are a safe place to transgress and explore. I love how in Second Life I can walk into a plaza dressed as a washing machine and yell, “Hello! Can anybody hear me?” and instead of annoyed glances or terror-stricken flight, I get casual replies. People walk up and ask if I need help. They give me shoes, directions, designer suits, the ability to hula dance. We like play because it feels harmless. It feels inconsequential. In the virtual worlds we can do things we would never normally do. Like learn about economics.

Eve Online is a MMOG that launched in 2003 and, at a time when most games of that age would be waning, it is starting to attract a lot more attention. It’s a galactic sandbox game with a unique twist. Instead of dividing its 200,000 resident amongst hundreds of servers and distinct copies of the game world, all players exist in the same universe. Everyone is sharing the same environment, and the game is driven solely by player actions. While there are game company-created missions, assets and money, most of the drama comes from interactions between players.

Players enter a universe where humanity is divided into four factions: the theocratic Amarr, the militaristic Caldari, the liberal Gallente and the rebel Minmatar. Players pick a side and create their lives. They start careers managing recycling companies and mining operations, becoming wealthy industrialists manufacturing star ships, and compete as warring corporations. Different regions of space have varying levels of security from heavily policed to complete lawless.

The game’s complexity and steep learning curve intimidate many gamers, but those willing to invest their time discover a fascinating world of anarco-capitalism. Without government subsidies, tariffs, taxes and tax loopholes, and international bankers, Eve Online is a close approximation of the classical free market imagined by Adam Smith. Players can trade in currency or barter, making deals they deem fair. The developers, CCP, implemented a change to break up monopolies, but other than that they’re generally laissez faire. Some players claim it is a vindication of Jeffersonian ideals—left to their own devices, people cooperate.

Others think the situation is more of a virtual Somalia, for the world is not without crime. Economic confidence scams abound, duping players out of their hard earned loot. Corporations have been infiltrated, their CEOs assassinated, and their coffers raided. When victimized, there is no government to petition. Wrongs are righted by oneself, with hired thugs, or not at all. On message boards, debates rage over which is superior: the liberty of tribal life, or the security of membership in an empire.

To help players understand the universe and make better-informed decisions, CCP hired the former Dean of the Faculty of Business and Science at the University of Akureyri, Iceland to oversee the economy. This month, Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, released the first 15 page quarterly report analyzing the population and economy of the game world. Players are now able to use econometrics to weigh decisions. “Though the overall conclusion is that there has been more than 40 per cent deflation in Eve Online from September 2006 through 2007, it appears that there are underlying inflationary pressures due to increased purchasing power,” November’s report states. The report presents complex data in a digestible format.

With so much complexity, rapid change and detailed data, the game actually works as training for real life business skills. “Once you have managed a virtual corporation that spans the universe, you can easily manage a real corporation that spans the earth,” says Trey Ratcliff—a former in game, and current real world CEO. As Eve’s lead economist, one of Gudmundsson’s roles is to work with universities interested in using the game to study economics and sociology.

Eve online is a totally unique game where individuals can play with ideas few people understand and even fewer debate. I’m fascinated with it because reading the message boards is exploring intellectual territory rarely trod upon in everyday life. A debate on the merits of anarchy? A discussion on various types of monetary policy? Eve Online is a community of intrepid souls venturing into the temple to find the man behind the curtain. They are living and debating alternate realities, questioning the economic and social ideals that underpin modern America.

What’s interesting is that it took a simulation to revitalize a situation that was the norm in the late 1800s. When William Jennings Bryant and the People’s Party railed against the gold bugs and collusion between the bankers and government, it was the poor farmers who shook their fists in angry agreement. Though lacking formal education, these people understood inflation and deflation and how the large creditors controlled the money supply. Progressives in the 20th century, however, steadily spread an ethos of rule by experts and the technocratic elite. Everyday economic experiences were derided as unimportant. The logic of macroeconomic decisions was obfuscated behind an econometric screen and obtuse academic language. It is fitting, now, to see people reasserting the validity of their intelligence and common sense within the magic circle.

Games. We play games because they are safe spaces where we can test ourselves and our world. Eve Online is not a true free market because money is injected be NPCs paying players to complete missions. The invisible hand of the market is guided slightly by the digital hand of CCP. It is also not true anarcho-capitalism because in the virtual world high school boys and soccer moms are fearless pirates. With consequences ameliorated, players are liberated to manifest transgressive fantasies. They are also liberated, however, to be entrepreneurial and daring.

My hope is that players, emboldened by their experiences in Eve, will become more engaged citizens in the physical world. The lack of civic engagement in the United States is shameful. The public is kept in subjugation by its ignorance of the economic, legal, and political forces that shape our world. This has to change.

While I am sure meaningful social progress must culminate in direct popular action, virtual worlds can play an important role in preparing for that action. A Force More Powerful is a game of epic complexity and lofty ambitions. Its funder, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, claim, “AFMP is designed for people who want to use nonviolent action in their own struggles for rights and freedom. The game will also serve as a valuable simulation model for academic studies of nonviolent resistance, as well as an educational tool for civil society groups and anyone who wants to learn more about the power and strategic use of nonviolent action.”

While Eve Online is an economic market model writ galactic, AFMP is a localized universe. Players lead social movements in one of ten scenarios or create their own, selecting agents and assigning them specific tasks and timeframes. Dozens of socio-economic details can be analyzed to inform decisions. Rusel DeMaria, a reviewer for Gamasutra concluded his article writing, “I can attest from experience that this game accurately models many of the challenges and struggles of an underground or citizen movement whose goal is to affect nonviolent change and public awareness, in a situation with volatile factions and the true potential for violence.” Players must micromanage their movements to victory, carefully matching characters with tasks, trying to prevent violence from breaking out and weakening the movement.

The game troubles me a little though, because of its technocratic portrayal of social change. “Insurgency groups may prove to be useful, but they can’t be controlled as well and may resort to violence if met with significant resistance,” wrote DeMaria. The statement reads like it’s from a CIA memo or the Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual. This is the myth of the Hero of the Revolution, the lionizing of an elite leadership to justify post-revolutionary inequality. Every culture has its creation myth, it’s resurrection story. Autocrats seek to insert themselves into those tales whether it’s Fidel in his tank at the Bay of Pigs, Hitler dominating the Munich Agreement, or Giuliani commanding from Ground Zero. Social change, however, is not about the nobility of a square jawed leader, but the countless sacrifices made by everyday people.

Despite that critique, I commend AFMP, because it’s an attempt to put new tools into the hands of future revolutionaries. The story their game tells is misleading, and I think does more to inspire a hubristic vanguard than to train future Harriet Tubmans. Nonetheless, if someone could make a real time strategy game that focused on collective action (and was fun) it could be incredibly useful.

Another important model is The game is simply a vocabulary quiz with advertising. With every right answer, advertisers donate 20 grains of rice to the UN food aid fund. Again, the model is problematic, but has potential.

First, the advertising-driven social change model is unsustainable. Dominant capitalists may fund some social causes for good PR (or even because individuals within the companies believe in corporate responsibility), but their charity only goes so far. Western Union and American Express can mail all the rice they want, but it doesn’t change their behavior as predatory financial institutions. Also, UN food aid is hugely controversial, and has been accused of being a shortsighted measure that actually causes long-term starvation.

The idea of web action affecting the real world is exciting. empowers players to do “good” without leaving the virtual world. There is a harmonious merging of play and social action; activism is fun. A more sophisticated version of this model (that was neither beholden to corporations nor contributing to red hearing solutions) could become a rapid meme that matures into a powerful social movement.

The Zapatistas, while not normally thought of as technological innovators, are actually skilful cyber tacticians. Since their uprising in 1994, the EZLN has relied on the strength of a rhizomatic network of websites to distribute information. After the Acteal Massacre in 1997, the Anonymous Digital Coalition spread a message calling on allies to launch a cyber attack against five banks based in Mexico City. Thousands of people crashed the banks’ websites by simultaneously logging on and continually refreshing.

There is the risk of being branded a terrorist for similar actions today. Civil disobedience provokes harsh reprisal if it disrupts commerce. The severity of the state’s response, of course, only proves the importance of culture jamming. Protesters need to be strategic, however, and market their resistance as a game. The Institute for Applied Autonomy’s GraffitiWriter is beautiful because it looks like a toy. The little remote-controlled wheeled vehicle can drive right past police spraying anti-corporate messages on the street without molestation. It has cute camouflage, a strategy more social activists could adopt.

As the Internet progresses into an increasingly ubiquitous part of daily life, we must learn to use it not just as a sophisticated, multimedia communication forum, but also as a tool for direct action. Players bond in MMOGs because their physical distance is eliminated by shared play. Meaningful relationships can develop from working as a team.

We can create an era when citizens collectively exercise their rights in virtual worlds that produce concrete results. For now, people need to simply apply the lessons they learn online to the real world. We need to take our debates from the chat room to the city hall. We need to resurrect the public discourse that is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy. Don’t pester the web master; petition the senator. If you’re bold enough to be an interstellar assassin in the Eve Universe, stand up and be a true avatar in your own community

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