AUSTIN, Texas - It would seem a natural fit: politicians, people and a world removed from reality.
And true, the whimsical universe in the online game Second Life is an inviting place for candidates hoping to get an audience with some of its 14 million “inhabitants” - people who create a character and move through a made-up world that’s somewhere between The Matrix and Grand Theft Auto.
But even with this presidential race forging new territory in online fundraising and networking, the alternate reality of Second Life is one frontier of the Internet that has yet to find a toe-hold in the buttoned-up arena of politics.
Campaigns haven’t figured out how to reconcile the all-important image and fundraising with a world in which a Gothic nymph can sit in on a congressional hearing - or a Teddy bear might try to donate to a political campaign.
So for now, the Second Life campaign headquarters of Barack Obama and John McCain are pristine, glistening and completely vacant most of the time.
“It’s been written about in fiction and cyberpunk, this idea that these online worlds could actually be used for political purposes, whether it is to recruit supporters, or train people to take action or to fund raise,” said Julie Germany, director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet. “It just hasn’t exploded the way other online tools have exploded.”
Second Life, a game launched in 2003 by Linden Lab in San Francisco, has only one real point: Create an alternate world online, move through it and interact with other people. It’s like a giant chat room, but with bodies walking around instead of just letters on the screen.
Anyone can get onto the game and create an “avatar,” a computer character that can walk, talk and fly, for no cost. They can use their real money to buy and sell Second Life real estate. They can build monuments, open businesses and create groups around common interests.
And, of course, they can talk politics and gather in a 3D form and in real time.
That’s what consultants and aides were counting on when former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, then a potential presidential candidate, became the first politician to officially set foot into Second Life in August 2006 as himself - speaking to a crowd of people as he sat in front of his computer.
By the time the presidential primaries picked up steam in early 2008, several of the candidates had their own islands, resorts or complexes in Second Life that served as their headquarters.
The goal, campaign types say, is the same bottom line in Second Life as it is in the real world: Get more money, get more votes, get more volunteers and get more exposure.
“There are some people that look for politics on TV, some that search Web sites, and some people search on Second Life,” said Keith Mandell, a Chicago lawyer who founded the Second Life “Obama for President” group in January 2007. “Others may just be hanging out, but they see a sign, and it piques their interest and then from there they might get involved in the real-life campaign.”
But the uniqueness and the interesting experiences haven’t overcome the challenges that abound.
Fundraising is still not an option in Second Life, as there is no way to monitor where the donations are coming from, and the majority of players are from outside the U.S.
And for this cycle, writer and former congressional aide Nancy Scola said, “all the air’s been sucked out of the room” when it comes to forging new ways for the Internet to help in politics because the candidates have already broken so much new ground through Facebook, MySpace and YouTube.
“If you’re working inside a campaign, your single goal is to get your guy in the White House,” said Scola, a former outreach coordinator for Warner. “It doesn’t leave a lot of room and motivation to play with new technology. Why mess with what’s working?”