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What if civics class were an online game?

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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 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 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.


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