It’s appropriate that the most recent State of Play conference was held in Singapore, and not just because virtual worlds require a global conversation that includes the voices of the vibrant and trend-setting Asian gaming communities. Singapore is itself something of a virtual world. Physically, it’s a mixture of self-consciously exotic “nature” with the rational geometry of planned architecture. Politically, the setting perfectly embodied the quietly authoritarian technocratic model that currently dominates virtual world governance.
In most commercial virtual worlds, the designers govern with the attitude that they possess the expertise and professionalism to keep the world functioning smoothly and harmoniously. Players are granted latitude of action within embedded software limits, but possess any rights only at the sufferance of the designer. Players who accidentally transgress social norms will be given a warning and gently reminded to be more courteous in future. Players who deliberately flout rules or seriously call into question the designer’s control of the world will be harshly punished, often through banishment. This one-sided system is justified on a theory of technocracy; the designers best understand the problems of running the world, and players should defer to their expert judgment.
The result is an oddly bifurcated political arena; the public sphere of debate and discussion is largely disconnected from the actual locus of decision-making. The architecture is a succession of manicured theme parks and shopping malls. Players may participate in the construction and make particular spaces their own, but they can do little to inscribe themselves on the landscape in any enduring way. Graffiti is regulated out of existence; surveillance is omnipresent. The instruments of designer power are rarely visible, but they hardly need to be, since everyone knows they stand at the ready. Free speech is nominally present, but most really subversive discourse takes place externally, in out-of-world settings. Life can be quite good indeed, but there is about the place something unsettling, something alien, something missing.
This description may be a caricature of Singapore. But I don’t think it’s a caricature of virtual worlds.