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Lawrence Lessig On What MMOs Can Teach Us About Real Life Politics

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Lawrence Lessig is a Harvard Law professor and a lifelong advocate for government reform; he’s argued a case before the Supreme Court, and for a brief time in 2015, even ran for President. Now, however, he’s taking on an unlikely task: Help design a video game.

As members of our community may know, Lessig is creating the political structure for Seed, our upcoming game in which players must collaborate (or compete) to rebuild society on a new, untamed planet. While the esteemed professor might not seem like an obvious choice for this role, this is actually his second stint as an MMO adviser: Back in 2002, he advised a startup creating a then-unknown virtual world called Second Life. His guidance helped make it a cause celebre for a time, attracting academics, theorists, and politicians curious to know what they could learn about the real world through an online simulation.

Lessig sees similar potential in the next generation of MMOs, which enable truly massive numbers of users to participate in the same, evolving environment. “Imagine,” he says, “virtual worlds with colonies with tens of thousands of players. People can say ‘I’m going to learn how to govern [in the real world] by governing a virtual world.’ I’d love to see if we can establish the relevance of that. Because obviously there’s a lot that needs to be learned.”

Lessig and I spoke late last November, when the full results of the US midterm elections were still being tallied. He found it depressing that votes around the country were being counted and recounted weeks after the actual election, and that the media had not anticipated the significance of absentee and mail-in ballots in their election day forecasts. The process, Lessig noted, “Evinced the deep infrastructural inequality built it into the system.” He worried that these results would increase frustration with the selection process, which would only intensify with the Presidential race in 2020.

“There’s a deep need of the American system to resolve itself,” as Lessig put it to me, “and I’m anxious that it will not resolve in time.”

Lessig’s design for the political system in Seed, which will shape how the virtual citizens of the game go about running their colonial settlements, reflect his thoughts on the many models of governance attempted on our own planet.

“I’ve basically been setting a framework of what a governing system would need to include, including an opportunity to select the basic system of government,” he tells me. In other words, players might choose to run their society as a representative democracy, a direct democracy, or even a dictatorship/monarchy.

One challenge Lessig and Klang is addressing is how much the game’s governance rules will be hardcoded into the programming, or get integrated into emergent gameplay. For example, as he puts it: “If you have a law that no one can wear blue shirts on Wednesday, who sets that?” Does the game simply make it impossible for citizens to wear blue shirts -- or alternately, if game characters disobey the law, are they publicly shamed by others in the simulation?

Lessig is also interested in possibly implementing an in-game process in which democracy doesn’t depend on voting: “I’m eager to experiment or enable the experimentation of systems that don’t need to be tied so much to election.” He’s thinking of a system described in the book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, which argues that government officials might be randomly chosen, similar to the jury selection process, through a mix of volunteering and lottery. “I would like to see in games, at least, a wider opportunity to experiment with that system of election. I’d love to see people playing with that.”

And a system like this might be a good way to address the larger problem of democratic parties making choices based on vastly different news sources: “There’s a real question about how to make sure people are living with a common set of facts so they’re not living in epistemologically isolating universes,” as Lessig puts it. “You got people who are living in radically different worlds, and they don’t even understand the same facts, so they can’t even come to the same understanding.”

This last point would be intriguing to model. In most games which include simulated voting, the election results are largely based on aggregate sentiment -- how happy or unhappy the virtual population is with their economy, civic services, etc. -- but it can’t be shaped by fake news. (The Cold War-themed Tropico games, which include an ability to influence public opinion through propaganda, are a notable exception.)

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In any case, Lessig hopes to see how a random selection system would play out in a game like Seed -- both for players, and possibly, for people interested in public policy.

“If you could randomly select 100 people and they all had the same information, that might give us a more representative understanding of the issue,” he says. “If we did that and it was a better way to address these type of questions, I think it would be useful and valuable outside Seed, too.”

- Wagner James Au