Thursday, January 10, 2008

Virtual Politics: I Don't Really Get the Relationship Between Second Life and Presidential Campaigns

I figured out recently that several of the political candidates running for President have a presence of one sort or another in a place called Second Life.

Okay, Second Life is not really quite a "place" - unless you think cyberspace is a place. If we're standing in front of a computer talking about the history of Timbuktu and I say, "Well, let's go to Wikipedia and see what year that was...," is Wikipedia a place? Do we really "go" there? How long does the trip take.

Second Life is a game. Like football, NASCAR, or most other games, it can be much more than a game. It can be a hobby. It can be an obsession. It can even be a way to make a living. But it's primarily a game. And it belongs to a genre of games called virtual worlds. At any given moment, 40 or 50 thousand people are playing Second Life all over the world. There are about nine million user ID's that have been created for the game since it started in 2003.

I'm familiar with virtual worlds because I've had to write about them at my site on investment in China. They're big business. The basic idea is that a person enters the game to interact with other players. The game is like life, in a lot of ways. But you have much more power over who you are. It's your second chance at life - a purely imaginary hobby of a life. If you're fat and fifty and bald and tired of life as a newspaper delivery man you can have a new life as an LA Lawyer, or as a Wall Street businessman, or as a 20-ish blonde beach babe with a full figure and a nice tan (if that's what you want). And whoever they are in the real world, most people in Second Life are someone else in the game, someone other than their real self.

But enough background...

I wrote a blog post after the Iowa Caucus and said that Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, and Mike Gravel had dropped out. Skyler McKinley from Senator Gravel's campaign staff contacted me to let me know I was mistaken, that Senator Gravel had no intention of dropping out. I'd gotten my info from MSNBC; they were wrong. Fair enough.

I Googled Skyler. Skyler goes by the name "Astrophysicist McCallister" when he's playing Second Life. I found an interview with Skyler, or at least with Astrophysicist McCallister, by someone who calls him or her self "Pollywog Gardenvale" published a newspaper for the Second Life world. For all I know, Pollywog Gardenvale is Skyler McKinley, too (there's nothing to prevent that, I don't think); but probably not.

Skyler's interview is about Senator Gravel's campaign headquarter in Second Life.

When I saw that Skyler was the coordinator for the Gravel Campaign inside a computer game, it reminded me of an email I got the other day from someone who finds my interest in politics at least a little humorous, I think. It was a image of a box of Corn Flakes, and there were pictures on the box of 19 presidential candidates. The box said "Same old corn, different flakes." And along the bottom it said "Now with Added Nuts!" And I thought, "The nuts are Ron Paul and Mike Gravel..."

My first impression was that Gravel's presence in Second Life was just confirmation of his "nut" status. I like the quote from this blog comment, "He (Gravel) is the fringiest of fringe candidates, so it probably comes as no surprise that Democrat Mike Gravel has a Second Life campaign site. What’s he got to lose?" I was wrong...

What I discovered is that a bunch of presidential candidates have some sort of a presence in Second Life. Gravel was the first. Second was Dennis Kucinich (okay he's almost a nut).

Lane's List has a list of other campaign sites in Second Life and claims that Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Ron Paul, and even al Gore have political offices in Second Life. Of course, you have to develop a Second Life ID to enter Second Life and visit these virtual sites. And it's not clear which ones are actually connected, officially, to the campaigns of those candidates (or non-candidates, in the case of Gore).

One of my favorite little tidbits that I came across in studying this is that a Gravel aide in Second Life evidently vandalized the Second Life campaign HQ of John Edwards (my first choice for President). If it's true, I hope he's in a Second Life jail somewhere...

The Internet has become incredibly social. I've found a few old high school classmates through Facebook. I'm familiar with MySpace. And even the average everyday site wants readers to comment on the site so the author can answer them and get a dialogue going.

Facebook and MySpace were intended to be places where people could advertise who they really were. Some people abused it and pretended to be someone else to form predatory relationships. But it was mostly social reality.

Second life was started as social fantasy. Be who you wish you were! It seems like the politicians have abused it by presenting their real selves in that context. Newt Gingrich basically started that abuse of Second Life.

What puzzles me is why politicians would insert themselves into a fantasy, role play game in the hopes of winning supporters. It seems like wasted effort...

Is Second Life a game? In the FAQ section of Second Life's website, question number two is "Is Second Life a MMORPG?" MMORPG stands for massively multiplayer online role playing game. And their answer is yes (and no)...
Yes and no. While the Second Life interface and display are similar to most popular massively multiplayer online role playing games (or MMORPGs), there are two key, unique differences:

  • Creativity: Second Life provides near unlimited freedom to its Residents. This world really is whatever you make it, and your experience is what you want out of it. If you want to hang out with your friends in a garden or nightclub, you can. If you want to go shopping or fight dragons, you can. If you want to start a business, create a game or build a skyscraper you can. It’s up to you.

  • Ownership: Instead of paying a monthly subscription fee, Residents can obtain their first Basic account for FREE. Additional Basic accounts cost a one-time flat fee of just $9.95. If you choose to get land to live, work and build on, you pay a monthly lease fee based on the amount of land you have. You also own anything you create—residents retain IP rights over their in-world creations.


Skyler said...


When I first signed on to the Gravel campaign, it was through Second Life.

That was about a year ago, and our campaign presence in Second Life has since been inactive. I'm the Campaign's Colorado State Director, and National Multimedia Director. If you'd ever like to contact me directly, to prevent misinformation such as an 'attack' on the Edwards HQ, I can be e-mailed, at any time, at

Kiwini Oe said...

The problem with understanding Second Life is that it actually is a lot of things all at once. Yes, it's game-like because it uses technology similar to games. But it uses technology similar to a Pixar movie. So is Second Life a movie? Is a Pixar movie a game?

One thing Second Life is is the evolution of interface to a multiuser environment. 20 years ago there were chat rooms and message boards. Some people used them to play games, others to lead fantasy lives, and others to discuss politics with people located around the world. Graphics hardware, network speeds, processing power, software have all evolved over time, and a multiuser interface like Second Life is the result. Some people use it to play games, others to lead fantasy lives, and others to discuss politics with people located around the world.

Why is a 3D immersive interface, especially one like Second Life where anyone can create the environment and the things in it, good for non-game/non-fantasy uses? Why do scientists model molecular structures in Second Life then "meet in the model" to share their discoveries or ideas? Not to play a game or have a fantasy life, but because it engages their creativity and it leaves them with a rich and persistent memory of having been in a place, collaborating, and not just sitting in front of a computer. Why do companies with employees around the world arrange meetings in Second Life? Because unlike a phone conference or text-based communications, people feel like they are much more together. Why politics in Second Life? George Miller likened it to a town hall meeting because the participants feel like they are sharing a space and time, and not just passing words through a computer.

It is still highly experimental and far from perfect, and there are a lot of bumps in the road, but 4 years from now much of the Internet will inherit multiuser/3D immersive characteristics from systems like Second Life, and people will be much more likely to dive into a virtual campaign HQ as a standard part of the political landscape.

Anonymous said...

As a writer and publisher who has spent the past 28 years in and around the computer industry, I view the popularity of Second Life as a sign post that says we are moving into the next evolutionary phase of the Internet -- one where viewers replace browsers. For me, it's a combination development platform, sandbox, and social space. I've attended a number of conferences and business meetings inside Second Life and have met interesting people from all over the world. For those of us who work in the computer and publishing industries, it's a natural step to use a virtual space as a creative and collaborative platform. As a writer, I find Second Life to be full of interesting people and projects to explore. My interview with Skyler McKinley (Astrophysicist McCallister)is no less valid because it was conducted inside a virtual world rather than by phone or e-mail. It is still just two people talking.

Claire Condra (Pollywog Gardenvale)

Greg_Cruey said...

Hi guys,

Responses here...

Anonymous said...

All of you people know that Skyler is still in High School right?