A long time ago (late 2003) I posted about a protest in EverQuest. Some of the feedback was 'so what? This stuff has happened in virtual worlds forever.' Elizaebth Kolbert wrote about protesting, naked, vomiting avatars in her seminal New Yorker piece about Ultima Online. And Dibbell told us all about the politics of virtual spaces way back when.
That's probably why these pages didn't get too excited about the Star Wars Galaxies protest that occured in August of 2004, although we mentioned it.
Lately, there was a protest in World of Warcraft that brought down the Argent Dawn server. Alan Stern was kind enough to send us links.
Despite being an admitted WoW fanboi, I think it deserves discussion. Is it old hat? Or evidence of latent statehood?
The linked pics show the obligitorily naked avatars - gnomes for the most part (naturally!) - coalescing near the Ironforge Auction House. That area is usually crowded anyway, so it is already a weak spot for the server farm. GMs warned the au naturel lilliputians to disperse, and then began suspending accounts. Too late; the naked dancing gnomes brought the house down.
A similar sequence happened in the SWG protest, as I recall. The crowd assembled, the technology groaned, the GMs began dispersing people by force, the server crashed.
The people said their protest was repressed. The company said it was rightly defending society from damage, even destruction. The company says the forums are the appropriate channel for feedback. The people say they are not being heard there. The political issue (basically, the damage output of warriors) certainly rose in visibility. The protest was a success, as were those in EQ and SWG, by the standards we apply to RL protests.
Yes, it's just another virtual world protest. However, the nature of these political events and their replication under different circumstances in different worlds suggests that they reveal something fundamental. Running a virtual world is a service, as we are often reminded, but it is more than running a BBS or a shopping mall or an amusement. There's a nascent politics. There's policy. There's speech and assembly. There's terror and reaction. If destroying the world and banishing people are not terror and reaction, respectively, I don't know what would be.
All this means that there are real issues of governance in play in the metagame. Can we predict an outcome in the long run? Look, there's a trend in human political systems that appears to be basically universal as of 2005: social stress eventually puts all policymaking and the monopoly of force in the hands of an elected and more or less representative body of rulers.
That's certainly not the state of governance in synthetic worlds today, for better or worse. Is change coming?
Will the sense of user entitlement and citizenship persist? Will it grow? Why would it grow? Would it not rather just stay at this low level of disgruntlement that sometimes flares up into protest?
Will these cultures begin to think of themselves in terms of statehood? Will nations emerge?
Stay tuned, I guess.