Page last updated at 12:59 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Taking democracy to the stars

By Flora Graham
BBC News

Screenshot from Eve Online, Atari UK
In Eve Online all players inhabit the same virtual Universe.

Iceland is one of the world's original democracies - its parliament, the Althing, is the oldest one still in use.

So it is perhaps no surprise that the game world of EVE Online, developed in Iceland, has become the world's first virtual democracy.

The Council of Stellar Management, created by the game's developer, CCP, just had its second election.

A group of nine players, elected by their peers, will be brought to Iceland for two weeks of meetings and debate. Their decisions will influence the direction of the game.

Campaign season

Like in the real world the democratic movement grew from corruption and scandal.

In 2007 a CCP programmer, who was also a player, used his insider status to enrich his online allies.

The outrage that followed could have destroyed the game, but the company quickly put anti-cheating measures in place. It also created the Council so that players could vet the new rules.

Rebuilding trust between players and the company was vital. Online multiplayer games are social--an empty virtual world is no fun for anyone. If game companies don't keep the players happy, their virtual world becomes a ghost town.

Ballot box, BBC
Like many other democracies Eve suffered voter apathy

The Council election was advertised within the game, and candidates used websites and blogs to publicise their manifestos.

"I got hints from watching old seasons of the West Wing," said Andrew Cruse, who won the popular vote and the leadership of the council in the first election.

It was a close race: Mr Cruse won by only 45 votes, running on a platform supporting small groups who don't want the game dominated by large alliances.

Petur Oskarsson, who led the development of the Council for CCP, said that the company was very impressed with its input.

"The elected representatives were awesome. The quality of the feedback was extremely good," he told the BBC.

Mr Cruse was equally satisfied with CCP's openness to the Council's suggestions. "They did absolutely everything that I could have expected, and more," he said.

Power politics

But the game is more like a benevolent dictatorship than a real democracy. Although the council is elected democratically, CCP is not obliged to approve their requests.

"They have a voice, not a vote," explained Mr Oskarsson.

CCP must be autocratic because there are technological limits to what the developers can do, said Jim Rossignol, the author of This Gaming Life, who writes about the role of videogames in society.

"There's always going to be a certain element of antagonism between the developers and the players," he said. "Players' imaginations always exceed what developers are actually capable of."

Mr Oskarsson had the difficult task of designing EVE's democratic system.

"My main goal was to make it as transparent and as simple as possible," said Mr Oskarsson. "I got into political philosophy—I read Thomas Hobbes, Jacques Rousseau and Emmanuel Kant."

But he didn't use Iceland's ancient parliamentary system as a guide. "I used that, but mostly to find out what not to do," he said.

Mr Oskarsson focused on term limits to make representatives more responsible to their voters - terms in EVE Online last only six months.

Democracy looks unlikely to spread to other virtual worlds. For one thing, in most online multiplayer games, the players are split between multiple "servers": separate independent versions of the game.

Wrath of the Lich King on sale, AFP/Getty
Democracy movements are unheard of in other online games

Although a game like World of Warcraft has hundreds of thousands of players, only a few thousand play together on each of the dozens of servers. In EVE Online, and a few others such as Second Life, all 200,000 players are in it together.

"EVE is just a single server; a single galaxy," said Mr Rossignol. "To have a council representing them makes a lot of sense, because an issue that effects one person on that server is going to effect everyone."

EVE also differs from online multiplayer games where players can choose to avoid interacting with other people.

"CCP calls those kind of games 'massively single player' because they end up being a solo experience that you lose yourself in," explained Mr Rossignol. "In EVE's case, the philosophy has always been human interaction."

EVE's democracy suffers from the same problem seen in the real world: voter apathy. Turnout was down from 11% in the first election six months ago, to 8.5% this time.

Mr Cruse suggests that turnout was down because a lot of the hot-button issues had been resolved by the first Council. Mr Oskarsson is looking into ways to keep the Council exciting and relevant.

"That's the next challenge," he said.

He also said that creating the system changed his perspective on democracy in the real world. "I put into place a democratic framework where there was none. Seeing that play out is very enlightening."

Mr Rossignol agrees that there's a message in EVE Online for real-world society.

"Even if CCP aren't voted in, [they're] at least answerable to someone directly face-to-face. That's healthy for governments generally."

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