Dems in Congress Living in Virtual Reality

Starting this week, the Democrats in Congress will have another platform in which to promote their 2007 legislative agenda: virtual reality.

Second Life, a multiplayer online game, launched streaming video Thursday of the opening of the 110th Congress, followed by a virtual discussion between a select group of invited gamers and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee.

"I think people underestimate how much politicians really do want to connect with the public, and this is a great way," said David Burk, chief executive officer of Clear Ink, a digital marketing firm that created the event.

While Democrats have jumped on the Second Life virtual bandwagon, using it to promote themselves and their issues, Burk said the space was designed to be nonpartisan.

"It's a great platform for meetings and social gatherings, so it's a great platform for politicians to get their message out," said Burk.

Miller, who's a close political ally of newly elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi, another Californian, was invited to discuss Pelosi's swearing-in and the Democrats' first 100 hours' agenda with Second Life users in the game's 3-D virtual world.

Miller's avatar, or "in game" persona, was dressed in a gray suit and talked with gamers for about 45 minutes about House Democrats' initiatives.

The Discussion Goes Live

Starting Friday, Second Life opens the discussion to the general public with virtual spaces available to discuss the Democratic legislative agenda -- an aggressive and widely promoted laundry list that includes funding stem cell research, lobbying reform and raising the minimum wage.

David Burk, CEO of the digital marketing firm that put together today's virtual question and answer event with Miller, said other Democratic congressional offices have contacted him, eager to host chats in the virtual world.

The creator said they've reached out to Republicans and anticipate that politicians of all stripes will begin using the technology.

The virtual medium opens a new public forum for congressional leaders, who have suggested they would like more public debate on policy before legislation. Second Life claims to be one of largest online multiplayer games in the world, boasting more than 2 million registered users and populated by 20,000 members at any given time.

Not Just for Congressmen

The virtual world of Second Life has seen its fair share of celebs, politicians and even corporate attention seekers hoping to make a splash in the digital world.

The game has hosted numerous public events, such as former Virginia governor and would-be presidential candidate Mark Warner's press conference, and Judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit responses in a virtual forum about legal issues that included online property rights.

Using avatars, players can enter the world in virtually limitless shapes and sizes -- yes, you can be a camel if you want. And while Burk admits it could make for a visually singular experience -- think congressmen talking to cows -- the forum is ultimately what matters.

"There's a lot of apathy around a lot of issues, and this is a great way of generating discussion," said Burk.