There has been an interesting debate going on between Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices and Hamlet at New World Notes. It’s a discussion centered around the Second Life virtual Darfur Camp built by several activists to highlight the plight of refugees from the conflict in the Sudan.
Ethan’s contention is essentially that while it might geeky and cool to build a virtual refugee camp in a 3D “metaverse” environment, this should not be confused with actual activism that will make an impact on the horrible tragedy over there. His experience with real refugee camps make it difficult for him to stomach a sanitized, empty simulcrum of a refugee camp. He was particularly bothered by the pristine campfire in the center of the virtual camp. He contrasted this with the reality of cooking fires in Darfur’s camps:
Firewood is a major problem in Darfur’s refugee camps. There’s not much firewood in Darfur to start with. There’s little or no firewood left near refugee camps – refugees routinely walk five to ten kilometers from the camps to collect fuel. If men leave the camps to forage for firewood, they run a very real risk of being killed by militants or soldiers. If women forage, they run the very real risk of being raped. So families engage in a terrible calculus – sending young girls out in the hopes that they’ll neither be raped nor killed.
Hamlet counters that there is something uniquely immersive about these 3D environments that grabs people in ways that other media don’t offer. He contends that Second Life asks you to actively engage with your environment as a participant rather than an observer. So using it as an awareness-raising and education tool potentially has dividends that might be harder to replicate with other media. While this might not be equal to the work of NGOs who are bringing aid and relief to the affected populations or peacekeepers trying to restore order, it is at least of “medium” importance in awareness-raising and educating people who might otherwise might not know anything about Darfur.
Meanwhile some of the original organizers of the Camp Darfur virtual space commented on Ethan’s blog about how the SL space is just an addition to their real world organizing activities, including building mock Camp Darfurs in towns and cities around the US. I was moved by Evonne’s comment on the constrast of Second Life virtual space and the realities of people on conflict zones:
[W]e are still limited by a medium that understands abundance more than scarcity, a disconnected metaverse where we cannot begin to understand the horror of being chased from our homes.
My only addition to this discussion is that people have difficulty dealing with the horrors of situations like Darfur or Bosnia or Rwanda. In the face of stories of armed militias committing atrocities against others and starving refugees it’s hard not to shut down your ability to empathize with the plight of other human beings. You feel somehow guilty and powerless at the same time.
So creating a space where people can encounter some of the reality of a horrific situation while also being empowered with information and ideas for how they can make a difference starts to look like a reasonably important contribution to the fight. People who might never surf over to “Save Darfur” website or watch a CNN special on the Sudan might visit a virtual Darfur camp just for the novelty of it.
Ethan argues that because Second Life is still a relatively small community of 200,000 “residents” while there are millions of internet surfers, creating a website on Darfur makes so much more sense than creating a virtual Darfur Camp in SL. Spending innordinate amounts of time designing a simulation of a refugee camp that will only visited by a small proportion of that 200,000 people seems like a poor outreach strategy.
He may have a point. But by that same reasoning I shouldn’t be talking to my 50 co-workers at my office about Darfur or my church of 300 parishioners. We need to reach out to our own communities, however we might define them. For lots of Second Lifers, SL is their community.
I’m reminded of how the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC presents the Nazi genocide campaign. The museum doesn’t immediately throw at you images of hundreds of dead bodies, or ematiated children. It doesn’t make you walk into a simulated gas chamber and lock you in. It gently and sensitively presents the situation of Jews in German society prior to the Holocaust, the roots of anti-semitism, the rise of the Nazi party, the creeping relocation of Jews to the concentration camps, and then the “Final Solution.” Along the way there are quiet places to sit by a window and compose your thoughts and feelings. And it concludes with a message of hope with videos of camp survivors. I left saddened but emboldened to live the vision of “never again.”
We should harness new media technologies to inspire people to light candles rather than curse the darkness. As Alice Walker said, “Each one, pull one.”
1 thought on “Virtual Darfur: Civic Engagement or Fake Activism?”
Great to read your point of view in this thoughtful debate. I liked your perspective and agree. Virtual Worlds such as Second Life are neither trivial nor a panacea. As usual, the answer lies somewhere between extremes. 🙂