What if civics class were an online game?

It's one of the biggest problems facing any established democracy – how to encourage the notion of citizenship among its populace. At a time of dwindling voter participation, and when the whole notion of what it means to be a citizen is in flux because of issues like immigration and assimilation, citizenship can be hard to define, and even harder to promote.

This is particularly true of young people, who may feel cynical, distant, and uninterested in learning about what citizenship means. And yet ...

My 10-year-old son belongs to an online community called Runescape, a world that resembles something you might find in "Lord of the Rings." Runescape is an MMORPG – a massively multiplayer online role-playing game. He and his friends often race home after school to "meet" one another online, in the guise of the characters they have created. Unlike single-player games, MMORPGs create a "persistent world," one in which the online community continues to evolve and grow even when your character (or my son's, in this case) is not online.

I checked out the community before allowing my son to join it. Bad language is forbidden, as is abusive conduct and a slew of other obnoxious or dangerous behaviors. There is a method for reporting those who break the rules, if they are not noticed by the game's operators first.

In other words, if you are going to be a citizen of this online world, you must follow certain rules. True, this online society is not one you'd find in the "real" world, but the code of citizenship in Runescape is similar to traditional ideas of what it means to be a good citizen (along with all the dragon and goblin fighting, of course).

But for Joe Twyman, the special projects director for YouGov, a British polling firm, the interaction between the Internet, online game-playing, and online communities like MySpace.com is redefining the idea of what it means to be a citizen. Last week, Mr. Twyman (who has helped coordinate studies of the habits of British voters) talked about his idea at a media conference in Quito, Ecuador, where we were both speakers.

Twyman pointed out that MySpace.com currently has 83 million members – almost one-third more members than there are people in the United Kingdom (60 million). And many of the members of MySpace feel a greater loyalty to that community (or to the small subsection of it to which they belong) than they do to the physical community in which they live.

"It's a two-stage process," Twyman told me later. "Social-networking sites like MySpace and MMORPGs take the notion of citizenship outside what the state has defined – a common language, region, etc. Instead, in these online groupings, the members find themselves in communities that are multiracial, multinational, and multilingual. And they can break this into smaller subsections of people they like or [those] with similar interests.

"And young people," he continued, "who have very little idea and notion of the concept of citizenship – it's something that happens to other people – are developing an understanding that there are behaviors that they need to belong to a community: the rules of the game."

Twyman says the idea that understanding the rules of association online can help you understand the rules of association in the real world has more potential than reality at the moment. But as 13- and 14-year-old members of social-networking communities and MMORPGs grow up, we could see that start to change. These young people may relate back to what they learned online.

In England, the government has decided that all new citizens must take a course in what it means to be a British citizen. The idea is to fight the alienation that many immigrants feel – young Muslims in particular, but all young immigrants in general.

Lectures, videos, and classes are one thing, but what if an MMORPG or online community could be developed to help young people learn more about British history and their duties as citizens? I'm not talking about some Pollyanna version of history: I mean a real game that young people would not see as a chore to play, a game that would also tell the story about Britain and how it came to be.

Twyman agrees that this could be done – he points to a highly successful game developed by the US Army to show young people what it's like to be a soldier – but he says the determining factor would be the quality of the game.

"Most people in the industry tell me that motivation is really not relevant to young people," he says. "What matters is how good the game is. The Army game was successful because it was fun to play. You could create a game to help young people learn to be citizens, but it would have to be a high-quality game."

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