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Public Diplomacy and Virtual Worlds

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THEME: Internationalism: Worlds at Play Abstract Public Diplomacy and Virtual Worlds An examination of the role of Massively Multiplayer Online Games as an extension of and venue for cultural dialogue, exchange and identity. Background Over the past decade, communications technologies have evolved more rapidly than has our ability to understand them. Since the early 1990s, we have witnessed a communication revolution, fueled by advances in computer technology, mobile and wireless communication, new information communication technologies, the expansion of broadcast through cable television and most significantly, the Internet. One element of this transformation has been the emergence of "many-to-many" networks, communication networks that allow large numbers of users to communicate with each other, without interference from gatekeepers, regulators or editorial influence. The global information culture is fundamentally shifting from a broadcast environment to a topology where broadcast amplifies, and is amplified by, many-to-many networks that are increasingly enabled by information technologies – including web services, publicly accessible databases, social software (weblogs, wikis, buddy lists, online games, file-sharing networks), mobile devices (camera phones, text messaging, global positioning systems), and the tools and technologies that blur the line between online and real-world spaces (web cams, wi-fi, distributed sensors, Internet cafes, MeetUp and other smart-mob phenomena). This transformation of the global information culture has deep and fundamental implications for politics and public diplomacy – dampening (or reversing) the effectiveness of traditional public diplomacy campaigns while opening up new opportunities that are not on the radar of public affairs people doing "business as usual." For example, relationships formed in the virtual gaming world transcend traditional geopolitical and geosocial boundaries; weblogs played a key role in the last Korean election, and text messages sparked rallies during the recent Spanish elections. Radical movements of every political stripe, from left-wing antiglobalists to religious fundamentalists (Christian, Muslim, Hindu), are fully conversant with the dynamics of these technologies, while their governments are not. The bureaucratic obesity of national governments, often precludes awareness of, much less a well informed response to, these emergent phenomena as they happen. These changes present new research challenges, as well as new opportunities for developing projects with long-term, real world social impact. The Study We are attempting to understand the relationships between many-to-many technologies – networked interaction on a mass scale – and public diplomacy. Our goal in this essay will be to describe how massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) or "virtual worlds" can facilitate intercultural dialogue among various groups. What is Public Diplomacy? Traditional definitions of public diplomacy include government-sponsored cultural, educational and informational programs, citizen exchanges and broadcasts used to promote the national interest of a country through understanding, informing, and influencing foreign audiences. We view the field much more broadly. In addition to government sponsored programs, we are equally concerned with aspects of what Joseph Nye has labeled "soft power." The impact of private activities - from popular culture to fashion to sports to news to the Internet - that inevitably, if not purposefully, have an impact on foreign policy and national security as well as on trade, tourism and other national interests. Why Virtual Worlds? Virtual worlds, mainly constructed through massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), function as communication networks in three different ways: • As one-to-many networks (developer to community). Virtual worlds, in other words, are created by a team of developers and include assumptions, values and beliefs in the structure, design, and art of the game. • As many-to-many networks. Virtual worlds are networked communication systems, which allow for interactive chat, internal email, and private and public messaging. Communication can occur among and between any of the online participants in a multitude of configurations. • As one-to-many networks (player to community). Virtual worlds also offer individual players increasing access to a new form of "broadcast." from things as basic as avatar appearance and selection to the ability to create and display objects or messages in public forums or virtual space. Each of these spaces provides us with research questions that can help us to better understand the role of virtual worlds in public diplomacy. Early research has confirmed that within these spaces, there is a unique opportunity to create, foster and sustain intercultural dialogue and that perception of national values, ideals, and character are both reinforced and altered by the real time interactions that occur in these spaces. Understanding Virtual Worlds • Cross Cultural Comparison. Our report will highlight representative examples of games produced in different countries (for example, United States, Korea, Finland, and England) with varied themes and designs in order to explore both the manner in which notions of nation, cultural values, and citizenship are reflected, integrated and assumed within the content of those games as well as the degree to which those representations are positive, negative or neutral. In doing so, we will ask three fundamental questions: 1. How does game content reflect issues of national identity and cultural values both of the producers and of the players? 2. In what ways are players encouraged or discouraged from engaging in intercultural dialogue and what opportunities exist for such dialogue? 3. What means do players have to reflect national identity or specific cultural values (private chat, avatar appearance and naming, object creation and placement) and how frequently do they engage in such opportunities? • Categorization. The answers to these questions (types and uses or networks, types of game design, and cultural content) provide us with extremely rich data to describe, measure, and access each MMOG’s facilitation of intercultural dialogue (from low to high effectiveness) within the three domains of design, content, and network. Those analyses, in turn, serve as the foundation for a typology that will provide categorical profiles of MMOGs according to combinations of the relative strengths and weakness in each of those domains with regards to fostering various forms of cultural dialogue. We will seek to identify nascent and novel manifestation of such dialogue. The typology overall and the categories elaborated within will offer a wide variety of useful tools to public diplomacy practitioners who are seeking to facilitate productive intercultural exchange during this time of intensifying globalization and technological change.
Contact: Joshua Fouts, University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy,
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