Imagine a nation where college students make ends meet by selling their kidneys, the government is avowedly atheist, euthanasia is illegal, and all tariffs have been abolished.
Sound like a throwback to the bleak days of hard-line dictatorships of the Eastern Europe's Iron Curtain? Or perhaps the return of a despotic-ruled Cambodia?
No, this describes the present-day regime of the ever-formidable Empire of Mediocrity.
What? Never heard of it?
The Empire is part of the biggest online game you never heard of — yet. It is called NationStates, a free Web-based game that allows anyone to build and run their own virtual country.
Max Barry, a 29-year old Australian novelist, says he came up with the idea of NationStates.net after filling out an online quiz designed to gauge a person's political philosophy.
"So many people have so many views as to what that best form of government is and they are absolutely convinced that theirs is the best way," Barry states. "NationStates allows them to see how their ideologies might play out."
And the types of online nations, housed in an online world of 12,000 "regions," truly run the gamut.
Consider some of Barry's favorites, such as The Principality of Twenty Nine, whose credo reads "Peace through superior firepower." Or perhaps, The Dictatorship of Angry PoliSci Majors whose motto says, "We're all going to be unemployed."
Other nations include the Holy Empire of Half-Naked Chicks and the United States of Bushism, a jibe at the verbal flubs made by the real president of the United States.
Free to Rule As You See Fit
NationStates can be described as a mix between the popular online family simulation, The Sims, and the classic board game Risk, the game of global domination.
Within minutes, anyone can set up their own "nationstate" by answering just a few simple questions in three subject areas: economy, civil rights and political freedoms. The result is one's very own virtual country, tailor-made to fit one's own personal political preferences.
Players also designate the national animal, the currency and the official motto of their land. But the fun does not stop there.
Once a nation is established, players will be presented with various issues, ranging from allowing Nazi protestors to march to feeding the hungry. Users can take stances on issues or ignore them all together.
Each action, or non-action, affects the prosperity of the player's nation and sometimes produce unforeseen side-effects. For instance, granting greater political freedom will lead to more civil unrest.
"There is no way to win and no way to lose," says Barry.
But the game has certainly proved to be a "winner" for Barry, who initially planned the site as an adjunct to his soon-to-be-published novel, Jennifer Government.
In the satirical tale of an "alternate present," practically the entire world is completely capitalistic. Everything is publicly traded. People take their last names for the corporations they work for and the police will only investigate crimes for which they can directly bill.
The book's epomymous lead character is a government agent, looking to nab a low-level Nike employee, Hack, who has been tricked into signing a contract that is really a Mob-like "hit" order. The order requires Hack to kill people who purchase Nike's newest model of shoes in order to build notoriety for the company.
The game, however, received no formal promotion from Barry's publisher, Doubleday. The Web site's launch consisted of merely an e-mail to twenty of Barry's friends. But word quickly spread from there.
"People started linking the site on their 'blogs , their web logs," says Barry. "And they would talk about their nation and how it was doing."
About 1,000 virtual nations sprang up within two weeks — well ahead of the book's Jan 21. release date. And the roll of virtual nations grows scores almost by the hour. The tally now surpasses 20,700 nations, not counting the 1,500 or so countries that have been deleted due to inactivity.
Barry says he is surprised by the response the site has received. He adds that the game has served as a sounding board for many different ideas. "I am a big believer in free speech," Barry mentions. "That this has developed into a forum for something political is great."
Equally fantastic for Barry: The book has recently been optioned to be adapted for the big screen by George Clooney and Steven Soderberg's Section 8 film company.
Barry has already started thinking about whom he would like to play the lead. "Maybe Sandra Bullock," he says.