Politics are no doubt one of the most persistent and pervasive aspects of modern life. Since the days of Cleisthenes in ancient Athens, success in politics has conferred status, power, and often wealth upon its devotees. It consumes and often destroys those who seek it, but the lust for success in it seems unquenchable. Thus far, major Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games (MMORPGs) have been slow to implement any politics besides very rudimentary. This is a shame, as the social engineering possibilities provided for by political systems are legion. The object of this essay is to lay out the basic reasons why an MMORPG should want a political system, and guidelines for designing and implementing a system to provide constructive politics in a massively multi-player online world. I'm not going to go into detail about any specific system, because nearly every functional detail will depend upon the particulars of your world.
To begin with, I must define what I mean by "politics", and particularly, by "constructive politics". For our purposes, let us define "politics" as generally non-violent competitions for power over fellow man. Thus, this would include anything from the American presidential race, to 'office politics'. On the other hand, I would not term the French Revolution, or the Austrian Wars of Succession, to be politics in this sense. I should note that in this discussion I will focus mainly on what you'd call state governments, or autonomous (at least when you ignore the power of the admins) governments who control a geographical area. Particularly, I'll be using the city-state in the ancient Hellenic style as my examples, as the largest governmental organizations in most MMORPGs with political systems are functionally similar.
What then, do I mean by "constructive politics"? I believe that political situations can often be categorized as static or dynamic. It's not merely a bivalent possibility of course, but a scale. On one end, there are completely static political situations, meaning that there is no competition whatsoever for power. Of course, as an absolute, that is not possible, unless it is a state of one. Monarchies and tyrannies generally are static political situations. There is some competition for power, usually of the 'office politics' situation, with the various individuals competing for the favor of the those above and ultimately the top person, but in the end the only way to truly change the government is through some sort of physical force-based pressure against the installed government, whether that government be a national, office, or household government.
Dynamic politics, on the other hand, are political situations where fluidity and whim are the rule of the day. A hypothetical system where elected officeholders are forbidden from holding office longer than one day, and could not compete for it on the day after their day of glory, would be an extreme example of a dynamic system, particularly if the electorate was large and diverse. I believe that in order to build and maintain a constructive, rather than a destructive, system of politics, one must build a dynamic system that is tempered with static elements.
Reasons To Implement A Political System, Admin POV
Why should you care about having a political system in your game? I've identified three broad, main reasons: binding players to your world, creating opinion leaders, and newbie assistance.
Politics allow you to provide players with two very important, positive feelings: a sense of attainment, and a sense of ownership and control over their environment. By giving players methods by which to advance in a political hierarchy, provided there are rewards attached (which will be discussed later), you give players the important feeling of achievement as they climb the ladder of success. Further, as players gain power in your world, they begin the transformation from guest to owner (at least in their minds, and that is what is important). The second reason for having a political system is the facilitation of the creation of opinion leaders. What I mean by this are people who others look to for guidance and who influence others opinions. To some extent or another, anyone who isn't a complete hermit is at least a very minor opinion leader, as we all have friends, family, and associates who are influenced by us to some extent. What we are concerned with, though, is the ability to manipulate the player-base without having to directly manipulate every single player. By manipulating players who have power over other players by virtue of their opinion, or by virtue of their position of power (which tends to make them an opinion leader), one can guide a world into productive behavior patterns more easily.
The final reason, from the admin point of view, for having a political system, is to provide incentives for established players to help newbies. If you create a system where the membership of an organization, and particularly the leaders, benefit from numbers of players and more importantly numbers of heavy players, the established players will work to orient the newbies and ultimately make them feel a part of your world.
So, reasons for having a political system, from the admin point of view:
Citizen Motivations For Civic Participation
While it's well and good to say that there are a number of benefits to be had in having a political system from the admin point of view, we need to examine reasons why players would be motivated to participate in a political system. First, however, we need to understand why the citizens of such a system would care enough to participate. Without a citizenry that cares, a political system will fail. Let's first briefly list the reasons that motivate people to participate as a citizen, in real life systems. These would include:
Fear of the current regime. An example of this is the old Soviet Union, which liked to brag that 99% of its citizens voted (under duress of course, and generally with only one, state-sanctioned choice).
Comradeship. I use this as a blanket term for motivations that involve a feeling of connection to the other citizens. Leaders of countries with a strong sense of nationalism often use this feeling to motivate the populace.
Public services. One of the most tangible benefits a citizen in modern states receives are services that the government has elected to provide, such as public roads, a legal system, security from foreign threats, and so on. Of course, it is the case that citizens who do not participate may nearly always still take advantage of these services, but many do feel obligated to participated due to taking advantage of the services.
Glory by association. Rather intangible, but not to be discounted, the feeling of glory that citizens of a successful state receive can be a prime reason why people care about their state. Whether it is an ancient Roman's pride in its immense military and organizational success, or 19th century Germany's pride in its cultural and intellectual prowess, or modern day American pride in its status as the sole superpower, glory by association is a powerful motivator.
Desire for self-determination. People want to have a say in their governments, given the level of power they can have over citizens. It's no more complex than a nearly universal desire to have one's opinion count.
It is the case, of course, that the reasons for a citizen in a MMORPG to care about being a citizen, will not be quite the same as in real life. Particularly, one cannot expect to use the element of fear too heavily. Unlike real life, where often the only way to disassociate yourself with the state you live in is suicide (I don't think I need to go into the significant psychological barriers to that method of escape), players in a mud can and will simply quit if they feel that what they believe to be their rights are being impinged upon too heavily. Further, regardless of what in-game age you have a character start at, you will never achieve the kind of rabid sense of obligation or nationalism that real governments can achieve through indoctrination from a very early age. Players come to MMORPGs with their fundamental values already ingrained, and trying to change that will just frustrate you and irritate the player.
Although it is true that some players, particularly in an intensive role-playing environment set in a world with a pre-existing history of nationalism (Star Trek, Tolkien's Elves vs. Dwarves, etc), can play with nationalist fervor, these players will never suffer the kind of discomfort and unpleasantness that real nationalists will. In the course of role-playing of course, their characters may, but the players themselves are there to have fun and will not stay around forever supporting a hopeless cause, as people may who are engaged in real-life nationalist movements.
Of course, there are similarities. Just as in real life, comradeship is a powerful motivator. However, this motivation only exists in any large degree when out-of-character relationships (assuming there is some element of role-playing in an MMORPG) are strong enough to cause players to feel that they have real, interpersonal relationships with the other players that far transcend the characters themselves. A player must feel that what happens to his friends character does, to some significant degree, affect his friend. He must feel that if his friend's character is harmed or disadvantaged, then his friend is actually suffering.
Likewise, a player can be manipulated to care about being a citizen by allowing governments to provide services for its citizenry that the citizenry either cannot attain independent of a government, or which are significantly difficult to attain independent of a government. I will go into specific examples of this later.
Glory by association is also a real reason which can be used to make players care. Even though the actual contribution of a citizen-player to the relative success of his government may be negligible, just like in real life, players will take significant pride in the success of a political organization to which they belong. This can be true even if the player-citizen has absolutely no voice at all in his government. Like sports fans in real life, people construct psychological attachments to essentially unrelated organizations, and the success or failure of these organizations can cause powerful feelings of glory or shame.