Saturday, May 31, 2008

Democratic engagment or PR ruse?

There has been considerable excitement in those interested in virtual world research about the results of the election of EVE Online’s Council of Stellar Management, which is as far as I know the first ever democratic experiment involving users of a virtual world. EVE Online is one of the most hard-core MMOGs in the world, an innovative and vicious global network of players engaged in galactic domination. The game has many interesting features that make it an excellent case study for regulation of the new virtual lands. It is a unique server, which means that unlike more popular games like WoW, all players can engage regardless of location. The game is also based on a unique premise, that of corporate and imperial greed in search of resources with which to bash your opponents. This has been translated into a loyal fan-base of tens of thousands, but little room for expansion, as the barriers to entry for new players are too big to overcome.

Now CCP, the Islandic company behind the game, have decided to empower its player-base by holding elections on the Council of Stellar Management, a body consisting of players which will be flown into Iceland to have direct talks with CCP and game designers. The press release reads:

"Since the earliest days of EVE’s development, we have relied heavily on collaboration with our playerbase regarding world issues. CCP has followed and nurtured what governing and organizational structures emerge within EVE and also brought best practices from the real world into the virtual world,” said CCP CEO Hilmar Veigar Petursson. “The formation of the Council of Stellar Management signifies to us that that EVE has extended beyond the parameters of being ‘just a game’ into something more meaningful. As this first group of Councilors works with us over the course of the next six months, we look forward to seeing how our combined efforts can further expand the potential for virtual worlds to entertain, educate and inspire.”
The men and women of the assembly will travel from their homes in the United Kingdom, United States, Netherlands and Denmark to Iceland in June for their first face-to-face summit with CCP representatives at the company’s corporate headquarters in Reykjavik. Speaking on behalf of the players that elected them, the Councilors will discuss EVE-related issues, offer suggestions and exchange ideas to continue the evolution of EVE, which recently celebrated its five-year anniversary."
This is quite a unique solution to the issue of governance of virtual worlds, but one has to wonder if it will be a genuine attempt to engage the fan-base, or it will end-up being just a clever PR exercise.

I found the demographics of voting more interesting than the actual vote itself. Veteran players constituted the largest voting block, and it is interesting to see that while roughly one third of EVE players are American, the actual voting was well-spread geographically.

Regardless of my typical cynical reservations, I believe that this vote is unique. Is this the birth of virtual democracy?

1 comment:

Endie said...

The CSM arose out of the allegations of wrong-doing inappropriate contact between a particular alliance and CCP developers, so it is interesting that the company have managed to finesse this into a bog-standard customer management exercise.

The difference between this and, say, the class correspondents program in SWG seems to be the addition of a democratic mandate. Given the awful standard of most of the game design ideas proposed (and, more generally, the negative reaction to "nerfs" viewed as necessary by just about any MMO firm) I suspect that the impact will be minimal.

Having suffered lengthy exposure to Jade Constantine, the chair of the CSM, I can only express relief that very little is likely to come of the process.