Pixels and Policy enjoys
covering the business and policy implications of virtual worlds, but many of
these studies, like Audi's plan to market a car through
virtual worlds, seem distinctly rich-world pleasures.
Countries like Afghanistan,
Burma, and Pakistan struggle to meet their citizens' daily nutritional needs.
Marketing cars and having a Second Life account comes second to surviving one's
Rita King of Dancing Ink
Productions and Dispatches from the Imagination Age has done some
pioneering work in the study of virtual worlds and developing nations. Her work
on using virtual worlds to understand Islam
should be required reading for budding policymakers in universities
Are developing worlds present
in the virtual world? Can the citizens of repressive regimes like Burma express
themselves in the Metaverse without fear of reprisal? There's one way to find
out — connect with some wired Pakistanis and see what they have to say.
Rich Experiences, Poor Communities
I was invited by a few
Pakistani friends to attend what they called a "comedy night" in the
virtual world of Second Life. You can excuse me for not knowing these types of
events existed, as every time I log in I'm confronted with a sea of idle
players soullessly grinding against each other in a slew of identical
nightclubs. I jumped at the chance to talk shop with friends in the virtual
Pakistan's laggy, unreliable internet
connection has been a problem for serious virtual worlds users since at least
2007, when the Musharraf regime made a real effort to expand
broadband access. But still they come to see comedians like Sami Shah, a
breakthrough Pakistani stand-up artist who bucks the nation's conservative
religious trends through pointed observational comedy.
Shah is one of a growing
number of world-minded Pakistanis turning away from the schizophrenic political
state of their nation in favor of the idealism of virtual reality. In Second
Life, Pakistanis – anyone, for that matter – can access a universe of over
600,000 active players for nothing more than the cost of an internet
connection. Once inside, the possibilities are limitless.
But the virtual world isn't
just for stand-up comedy. Ambitious avatars from developing and wartorn nations
in the Middle East and South Asia have constructed replicas of Baghdad's city
streets, photorealistic mock-ups of a spacious Middle Eastern market, and the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Yes, theentire Kingdom.
As I could tell from my
experience at the night club, the citizens of developing nations will find ways
to connect. Whether through internet cafes or priated Internet, the feeling of
uninhibited interaction is an addiction not easily shaken. The virtual
nightclubs where Sami Shah performs his routine are rare in Islamabad, where
freedom of speech has waned over the years.
In other parts of Pakistan,
notably its tribal West, wearing a shirt open at the collar and riffing on the
Taliban can be dangerous to one's health. But discussions in Second Life run
the gamut from comedy to philosophy and politics. Even the heavy weaponry some
players wear is more theater than threatening – there is no death in the
If the history of previous
tools of communication is any guide, Pakistanis could soon see their desire for
communication leak across the virtual boundary. The advent of mass printing and
the telegraph changed written communication by greatly expanding the pool of
This literacy blossomed into
books and messages of all types: Political awareness entered a Renaissance at
the same time creative fiction and journalism entered the households of
millions. Expanding communication through virtual communities is the next
logical step in literacy's long evolution.
Empowered by their idealism
and encouraged by their successes in building virtual communities like Second
Life, young Pakistanis will increasingly question why so many seemingly basic
infrastructural and political fixes are met with government dithering. A young
Pakistani who successfully prototypes a public water system in a scale model of
his village will be less likely to accept her government's claim that such
engineering feat simply cannot be done.
Real Change Through Virtual Worlds
The shared sense of purpose
and community created by virtual worlds will give rise to the same groupings of
concerned citizens that printing presses made possible.
Public interest groups could
easily span Pakistan's wide and rugged terrain when tribal leaders who may live
hundreds of miles apart no longer need to be physically present to speak with
In a community where only one household may own a computer,
enabling such long-distance conferencing with visually familiar representations
of tribal leaders or government officials may create substantially more
interaction and teamwork than now exists.
Once many young Pakistanis
from across the nation are connected in one visual, virtual community, old
dependences on an ineffective central government will melt away in favor of
group problem solving.
In other words, Second Life
and virtual worlds may well streamline and improve Pakistani government not
because it allows Pakistanis a means to protest, but because it gives them an
alternative to potentially corrupt government: They now have each other, and as
the network grows, so does the potential for the group to take on ever more
Whether letting their hair
down in virtual comedy parlors or showing Western visitors the ropes of virtual
Islam, Pakistanis – and those across the developing workd – have a larger
cyberpresence than ever before. If the governments of developing nations fail
to satisfy the growing desire of young, wired citizens for national
modernization, it is entirely possible that the old ways could fall to the
wayside. We can hope.