Parliament to launch Second Life-style online assembly

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The European Parliament is developing a new virtual role-playing game and social networking forum to boost citizens' understanding of how the EU works. But critics predict the website will become an expensive "virtual ghost" with very few users. 

Citzalia, a virtual 3D world developed for the EU assembly by the European Service Network (ESN), will see participants create their own avatars to walk around, interact, network, debate topical issues, propose and vote on legislation.

Players can opt to play the role of an MEP, journalist or student as they seek to improve their understanding of how democracy works in the EU.

'Democracy in action'

"Citzalia is democracy in action. It is a role-playing game and social networking forum wrapped in a virtual 3D world that captures the essence of the European Parliament," reads a statement on the project's website.

The game, which ESN says cost €275,000 to develop, recreates the EU assembly's offices in Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg in a manner similar to popular online community Second Life.

Its features include a citizens' agora to debate EU issues, a press room where articles can be published in a newspaper, a simulator of the legislative process, a library, a kids' zone and an exhibition hall. 

Participants can create their own offices, which they can then furnish and decorate. Having an office allows users to add pictures, blog, add a webcam and post voice messages.

Once a participant has tabled a legislative proposal, other players will be able to vote on it.

EU officials hope the game will provide a platform for debate and discussion of the issues that have been, are or can be addressed by MEPs.

"It is an opportunity to hear how other fellow citizens feel about current issues and about the role of the European Parliament," the statement continues.

Asked about the EU's motives for funding the project, Ahmed ElAmin, Citzalia project editor at ESN, told the press that "they want to get EU citizens debating and talking about [European law] and get people to participate on the issues the [European] Parliament debates. Citzalia is a tool for EU citizens who want to understand more about the way parliament works".

"We're entering new territory," said ElAmin. "Nobody knew if Facebook would work. We're trying something, and doing everything we can to ensure its success."

ElAmin insisted that there would be no censorship in the halls of the virtual parliament, but acknowledged that there is a "huge risk that misinformation could be fed in".

To address this, avatars of European Commission officials will "correct" mistaken views about the EU, he said. "They won't be editing for views, but having these people in can sort of correct things," he told the Guardian.

However, it remains to be seen how popular the world of Citzalia will prove to be, given that the site is yet to launch and is currently in a beta trial phase.

Citzalia under fire

The project has already come under fire from prominent Brussels blogger Jon Worth, who points out that "it's simpler for MEPs to approve a few million euros for a website than it is to actually get them communicating effectively themselves".

"I really fear this is going to become a virtual ghost European Parliament with high costs and very few users," Worth says, identifying "structural problems" at the EU assembly which hinder the ability of MEPs to influence the European Union at large.

"The overall direction of European integration and even the composition of the European Commission are too little influenced by whether the [Parliament] is controlled by the left or the right," he states, arguing that "the incentive for [MEPs] to really effectively communicate themselves is still lacking". "No amount of slick websites can possibly address that," he declares.

Doubts persist among the public, too, even at this early stage. Commenting on a video demonstration of the game posted on YouTube, user PatBasssing said "[it] looks very boring – total waste of money".

Others questioned the project's democratic credentials. "Democracy has died so let's give the people […] a simulation," said M187K, another user.

Meanwhile, user opium47 pointed out that "this game is not real. There are no lobbyists," a remark echoed by MrParadigmenwechse, who asked: "Where are the 30,000 lobbyists?"

Citzalia is currently encouraging citizens to sign up to a beta version for testing before the full site goes live later this year.

Describing how Citzalia will work, Ahmed ElAmin, project editor at the European Service Network (ESN), which developed the game, told UK-based website computing.co.uk: "[Users] enter as themselves and are represented in the 3D space by avatars. They are not competing, but they will be able to gain experience points and use them to perform more actions, such as make informed comments on debates among members in topic areas."

"They build experience points by comments on articles and also by gaining them as other members approve of their articles," he explained. 

Writing for the UK's Daily Telegraph, columnist Christopher Booker declared that "virtual democracy leads to an ever more profound disconnect between government and people. We 'walk around, network, debate issues of the day', even 'propose legislation'. But […] it is an empty charade. Behind their hands, our rulers must really be laughing at us".  

Commenting in Turkish daily Hürriyet, columnist Sophie Quintin Adali said "presumably the point - at 275,000 euros - is to shed some light on the terribly important role of the EU legislature without which there would be no democracy worth talking about. With record low participation in the last parliamentary elections (2009; 43%), things are getting desperate".

"Frankly, the thought of citizen-avatars unleashed in the virtual corridors of power to try and figure out the 'co-decision' legislative process is dizzying. Good luck to them with the arcane complexity of consultations between the Commission, the Council, the Parliament and the culture of deals behind the proverbial 'closed doors'," she wrote.

"Exposing the boring, poorly attended and entirely 'managed' nature of debates in the hemicycle would be in the interest of transparency," Adali conceded, before urging the designers to "forget the citizen-avatar. To really learn how it works, there should be an option for using a lobbyist-avatar. After all, interest groups are ideally suited for the European multi-layered, consensus-driven polity".

"'Managed' democracy, virtual or real, is a risky business. Citizens - like avatars - can be unpredictable and uncommonly ungrateful. In Europe, the propensity of the former to rebel by giving the wrong answer ('no' votes or abstentions) to the unique brand of 'yes-only democracy' is amply demonstrated. The game designers insist that there will be no censorship. So maybe a formula for a freer Europe might actually emerge from a silly idea because in the real EU, all we get is more of the same old democratic deficit," the columnist concluded.

At the beginning of the year, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek launched his own Twitter account in a bid to better communicate with Europe's citizens, becoming the first president of the EU assembly to use the micro-blogging service (EURACTIV 22/01/10).

Ahead of the last European elections in summer 2009, the European Parliament created profiles on online social media (Facebook, MySpace and Flickr) in an attempt to reach younger voters. 

However, the core message of the sites remained the date of the elections and the impact of the Parliament's decisions on the daily lives of Europeans. Little genuine two-way communication with politicians took place. 

Indeed, a survey published ahead of the poll by Fleishman-Hillard, a public affairs consultancy, found that while Congressmen on Capitol Hill are already tweeting with Americans across the United States, members of the European Parliament are still making scant use of social media and fail to fully grasp the potential of digital politics to engage with voters (EURACTIV 20/05/09). 

Last autumn, another survey carried out by StrategyOne and public affairs consultancy Edelman found that MEPs are lagging behind when it comes to online engagement with EU citizens (EURACTIV 10/11/09). 

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