Robinson Crusoe is an instructive fable for politics. Not because Crusoe forged a utopian world for himself using a few tools that survived a shipwreck, but because, as Marxist economists have noted, most retellings of the story ignore where the tools came from. Crusoe was a slaver, and political-economy tends to ignore its spoiled seed. Utopias are rarely what they seem on the surface.
An upcoming online multiplayer game called, coincidentally, Seed , will cast players as so many Robinson Crusoes, thrown into a virtual world with few pre-set parameters where they are tasked with forging a robust political system. The game's political mechanisms are being designed by none other than Lawrence Lessig, the legendary constitutional scholar who unsuccessfully ran for president last year.
Lessig isn't chasing utopia with Seed, but he is intensely interested in finding out what happens when people are given the skeleton of a trade economy and left to their own devices. Maybe, just maybe, something better than what we have now in the real world will emerge. Or maybe not.
Seed is still in the works and won't be released until 2018, but the idea is to have players control in-game characters that exist in communities with other players. These avatars live out their lives in simulation even when players aren't online, and each real-world week is a year in the game. These communities will be given immense latitude to determine the terms of their political existence, from monarchy to direct democracy.
These communities will also trade with each other within an economy that will be initially pre-programmed, but will eventually give way to player rules as communities trade with each other and set their own prices. Some communities may even opt out of this global capitalist trade regime entirely. It's worth noting that several of the co-founders and staff of the game company behind Seed, Berlin-based studio Klang, also worked on EVE Online , an interstellar multiplayer game that features a robust in-game economy.
To find out what it means for Lessig to work on this project in the age of Trump and fascism on the march, and how Seed can give us insights into real-world politics, I chatted with Lessig and Klang CEO Mundi Vondi over Skype.
Motherboard: We're in a very tense and tumultuous political moment. What does it mean for you to design a game like this in the age of Trump, and after your own presidential bid?
Lawrence Lessig: The evolution of this project is quite funny. I was actually in Berlin the day after the election. I woke up that morning to see the results, and had this meeting set up with Mundi and his team to talk about the game. And it was a surreal feeling, like, governance in the real world is so fucked. We have to start thinking about how to build it in the virtual world.
Obviously, I have strong views in the real world about how to build democracy. But in the virtual world, I'm not interested in pushing my personal views. I am really interested in creating a platform where people can choose these very different forms of governance, and my hope is we can step back and see what works. If we have 100,000 game communities out there all choosing their own forms of government, and we have five stable forms that they were choosing between, data scientists could say, "Jeez, democracy with randomly elected leaders is killing every other form of governance!" That would be very interesting and valuable, I think.
Will the Seed community be moderated if, say, it gets brigaded by 4chan and anti-semitic or explicitly Nazi imagery makes it into the game?
Mundi Vondi: I think we need to stay open to the trolls and all that grief. Obviously, with anything super brutal like Nazi or racist propaganda, we can remove those players from the game. But when it comes to them playing as brutally as those dictators acted, we need to allow that to see the results and effects. It's important to allow really harsh gameplay. I'd imagine that it will start off very chaotic, and players will be on a rampage, and out of these asses a more civilized community will arise because the benefits are always going to be greater—you naturally gain by being more organized. As the game grows we'll see more reasonable communities.
"I'm more optimistic about the politics of Seed than the real world"
Lawrence, in an op-ed explaining your presidential run , you wrote that democracy is not a utopia. There are concrete antagonisms to address and steps to be taken in order to dig ourselves out of the hole we're in. Is Seed a game about political utopias, or political fantasies?
LL: I don't think it's utopian in any sense. The effort in creating and maintaining communities in Seed is real effort—it's not a simple gift. But I think we can learn a lot about what sorts of governance structures help people to flourish in these spaces. Maybe that doesn't translate to the real world, but maybe it does. I think that the opportunity to have this massive experiment in different forms of governance, simultaneous and real, is pushing us in the direction of improving our forms of governance or at least giving us a map of how to improve them. That's what's most interesting to me.
So, Seed focuses on collective decision-making. In politics, laws are a form of collective decision-making, but we often don't think of collectivism with regards to that and many people actively reject ideas of collectivism when it comes to governance. What do you hope players will take away from being forced, basically, to consider their political choices as being part of a larger collective?
LL: The extent to which collective decision-making affects your day-to-day living inside of Seed depends fundamentally on what the political structure of your community is. If you decide to have a monarch, then all the decisions are made by the monarch and you don't have any ongoing daily decisions. You could live in a representative democracy like Germany or the US, where you spend time deciding on your representatives and then they make decisions for you. But that might seem burdensome to some people, so they might choose a different form of representative democracy.
One of the options that I hope we implement is a representative democracy, but like in ancient Athens, all the leaders are randomly selected and they have to spend a cycle making decisions for everybody. That way, there's no politicking but it is representative. These are the kind of trade-offs that we want to enable so the community can decide how many cycles they want to spend on collective governance versus the other cool parts of the game.
MV: We're putting a lot of weight into how these decisions affect your gameplay. You don't just buy a new character and they pop into existence; you have to breed and raise them, and send them to school. As a player you should feel close to your character, so if they're being pushed around by some asshole who's governing, you'll get mad about that. There's all kinds of things you'll be able to find out—even if a monarchy is successful, you might have very low happiness. "Playing with fire" is one way to look at it, but having a tool where we can pick out some of this information is very valuable.
How optimistic are you about the politics of Seed , versus real-world politics right now?
LL: I'm more optimistic about the politics of Seed than the real world, because the interests that have corrupted the real world are entrenched and powerful. But they haven't had a chance to develop in Seed. i think it starts with a little bit of a blank slate. But, it's not a guarantee, and who knows how things will develop over time? But my expectation is that we'll start in a better place.
This interview has been edited for length and for clarity.
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