Off and on over the last four years, I have participated in online political simulations — either based on some sort of Web forum, or through Yahoo! Groups. I was originally attracted to the idea because I thought the sims would provide an interesting counterpoint to the conventional wisdom of political scientists, about the structure and organization of governments and communities. It seemed to me, when I first enrolled, that sims were a real-life learning lab, where the lessons of rational-actor theory, respect for the rule of law, and other pleasant nostrums of political theory would be on full display for confirmation and further analysis.
Well, I did learn a few things. And now that a strange situation has developed in three of the four sims in which I’m presently enrolled, it seems an opportune time to reflect on my experiences in virtual government.
Lesson No. 1 — Hobbes was apparently more correct than Rousseau. The Hobbesian theory that people lived “nasty, brutish and short” lives in a hellish state of nature, and the evolutionary biological traits that would result from such an environment, are on display in these simulations. Barring strong leadership by people explicity committed to procedural fairness equally applied to friend and foe, sims tend to devolve into macho posturing, barbed witticisms and take-no-prisoners grudge matches dominated by the most socially aggressive. Cooperation is not the default behavior, even among those interested in participating in a simulated government.
Real-life parallel: The blogosphere and its counterparts in magazines, newspapers and cable TV.
Lesson No. 2 — When actions have no practicable consequences against people encountered in the real world, actors tend to treat others as if they lack basic moral standing. It is amazing to see how living, breathing humans are routinely denigrated and even demonized simply because of disagreements over politics or tactics. Even people in the same ideological cohort can enage in this behavior against co-partisans (where, in fact, it is often even more bitter than cross-ideological castigation). Since we don’t see Bob the Evil Democratic Villanous Baby-Killer as Neighbor Bob, it’s easy to treat him as the next incarnation of Josef Stalin. But we forget that Bob is a person and not a straw-man. And the rapidity and apparent facility with which our memory is purged of Bob’s personhood is scary. Well and truly scary.
Real-life parallel: The Holocaust, and other instruments of mass extermination, especially in the context of German social guilt.
Lesson No. 3 — Rationality is optional, but loyalty is not. It is strange that in a political simulation, where argumentation should be of paramount importance, the laws of logic are apparently suspended in service to ideology or personal loyalty. In fact, informed discussion is often dismissed as being excessively intellectual (and hence snobbish or condescending), and when someone is losing an argument, ad hominems and irrational re-directions become the rule of the day. Quite simply, among a distressingly large majority of simulation participants, rationality is not a virtue to be cultivated, but rather an obstacle to be overcome, and the degree to which rationality is honored is dependent on a person’s loyalty to the leader of a faction (and ultimately, to that leader’s commitment to logic).
Real-life parallel: MoveOn.org and most of the dogmatic, hard-core Left, and certain hard-right Catholic sedevacantists.
Lesson No. 4 — Ideological certitude is the leading cause of the breakdown in the social order. The populations of simulations tend to fall quickly into cliques based on ideology. No surprise there. However, within each clique, there is a tendency for a second-level distinction to arise, based on each person’s comfort level with aggressive tactics. Those who prefer open conversation, procedural fairness, and civility are usually branded “moderates” (or “damn moderates”) and marginalized in a pole-dominated caucus. Thus, the hard-core leftists and the hard-core rightists are engaged in a fight to the death, while in the middle live those few who, despite their support for liberal or conservative policy positions, are nevertheless considered disloyal for their openness to debate and fair play. Ideology divides us, but within an ideology, disagreement over tactics is the operative friction, and as such, the moderating forces within an ideology are often marginalized. The predictable end result is excessive polarization.
Real-life parallel: The active leadership of the pro-life and pro-choice movements.
Lesson No. 5 — The good of the many is relevant only when the good of the self is satisfied seriatim; conversely, if an otherwise beneficial policy is proposed but it leads to some sort of loss to the self (either in terms of power, or of face), it will be vehemently opposed. I have seen the exact same simulation-rules changes be supported and then opposed opposed by the main political caucuses depending solely on which held majority status. Never mind whether the proposed change was good for the simulation; if it threatened the self, however defined, then it was a bad proposal that must be opposed at all costs.
Real-life parallel: Major reform efforts centered around Congress (e.g., campaign finance and lobbyist reform initiatives).
There are other aspects to this, of course. And I learned exactly the opposite, in the long run, of what I anticipated — I came to realize that despite man’s inherently social nature, our tendency is to hunt in packs that are heirarchically organized and committed to some core mythology that admits to no internal dissent, either in tactics or in belief.
Kinda like al Qaeda, except they’re the bad guys and so aren’t like us at all. Or something like that.
Even in the United States, among educated people (including some I’ve verified as having real-life doctoral degrees), sim participants too often demonstrate the breakdown in social cohesion that is so often excoriated when practiced by Islamofascist terrorists yet is rationalized away when practiced by themselves.
Of course, it remains an open question whether sim participants adequately mirror the population at large. I should hope not — some of what I’ve seen over the years has been downright bone-chillingly evil — yet a survey of the popular culture, from Jerry Springer to Hollywood divorces to the average college freshman classroom, suggests that even if the sample is deviant from the population … it’s probably not by much.
I used to be optimistic about human nature, but no longer. I used to think that we’d find some way to overcome our ignorance and our prejudice to arrive at a glorious and better tomorrow for mankind. Now, I’m skeptical. Perhaps my sojurns in virtual democracy have made me more cynical, or perhaps they’ve opened my eyes a bit about the nature of my fellow citizens.
Either way … the experience has been sobering.