The Political Game: The Virtual Candidate

Each week Dennis McCauley contributes The Political Game, a column on the collision of politics and video games:


Is it youthful and hip -- or just geeky and weird -- for a major political candidate to shake hands with a furry or kiss a baby avatar in the virtual world?

We'll find out in 2008.

When presidential hopeful Mark Warner visited Second Life last week, it represented a milestone for both online gaming and American politics.

For the online game community, the former Virginia governor's Second Life stop was a definite boost. Most notably, it marked the first time anything but negative political attention -- violence! addiction! -- has ever been paid to an MMO. Moreover, Warner's visit was a tacit admission that there is something worth tapping into within the Second Life space -- that, despite the game's virtual landscape and offbeat avatars, SL is a real place, populated by gamers with genuine concerns, and, most importantly, gamers who vote.

Warner, a Democrat, is seen as a strong candidate for his party's nomination in 2008. His Second Life appearance was brief, and, like most real-world campaign stops, carefully managed. After flying onstage, Warner was interviewed by Wagner James Au, Second's Life resident journalist, also in character. Audience questions were not on the menu, although Warner pledged to return to SL later this year for a more wide-open "virtual town hall" meeting.

Warner didn't talk much about the mechanics of his Second Life appearance, other than cracking a joke about feeling "disembodied." The candidate stuck to big, real-world issues like abortion and Iraq.

As campaign appearances go, this one earned mixed reviews. A staffer from Forward Together, Warner's fund-raising PAC, was positive, of course, posting on GamePolitics, "For a first try it went pretty smoothly. And that's what this was, a first try. There will be much more done by Forward Together and Governor Warner in the future when it comes to Second Life."

Second Lifer Rik Panganiban, who attended the event and goes by "Rik Riel" in-game, took a more objective view, telling me, "I think the mainstream, over-30, non-gamers will find this to be at most a curiosity. Middle America is not ready for a virtual presidential candidate. No matter how carefully his avatar is crafted and his gestures are animated, he will still come off as stiff and artificial in Second Life. That's kryptonite for a presidential hopeful."

Political pundits were generally unimpressed. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank poked fun at the event -- and, to be fair, where Second Life avatars go, fun-poking is sure to follow. Zack Exley at the Huffington Post noted the low turnout and pronounced the Warner visit a "huge failure."

But Exley is missing the point. It wasn't about how many avatars showed up to watch. Rather, the visit was part of the Warner campaign's effort to position their guy as energetic, tech-savvy and youthful. He's no Ted "series of tubes" Stevens, that's for sure. Only 30 avatars may have attended, but how many thousands of potential voters heard or read about the Second Life event after the fact? Remember, no one cared much about Meetup.com until 2004 when Howard Dean demonstrated how crucial Internet strategies are for modern political campaigns.

WaPo blogger Chris Cillizza, however, seemed to get it. While terming the Second Life appearance "the strangest 'event' of the 2008 presidential race to date," Cillizza added, "Warner's online efforts shouldn't be discounted. His willingness to participate in a campaign event on Second Life shows that candidates are seeking to reach voters wherever they are -- online and offline, in the real and virtual worlds."

Still, there were some obvious problems. Warner's avatar was just this side of creepy, resembling nothing so much as the G-Man from Half-Life 2. Plus, there's a certain amount of freaky avatar sex going on in certain areas of Second Life. Uh, so I'm told ... . When rival campaigns "go negative," as they invariably will, could Warner's Second Life visit be spun as an excursion to some type of animated porn site?

Obviously, not every MMO is ripe for a campaign event. Visiting a WoW PvP server, for example, would require a virtual Secret Service detail of epic-equipped level 60's to smite would-be Horde assassins. But perhaps a whistle-stop in some of the casual game spaces like Club Pogo might win over middle-aged Bingo or Cribbage players who don't think of themselves as gamers and who would never dream of stepping into Second Life or any other MMO.

In the final analysis, whether or not this gimmick pays off for the candidate at the polls, online gamers win. Warner's Second Life visit helps legitimize the oft-criticized virtual realm.


Dennis McCauley is Editor of GamePolitics.com and writes about games for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Opinions expressed in The Political Game are his own. Reach him at dennis@GamePolitics.com.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.