When I was in high school, some friends and I decided it would be cool to start our own country, Bridge to Teribithia-style. As the idea gradually came into contact with reality, it degenerated into “simulate a country” and then “role-play a country”.
Then as more people got interested, it expanded into “role-play a planet”, and then back up to “simulate a planet”.
I’m not sure when it morphed into “get hundreds of friends to create and spend large portions of their lives in a fantastically-detailed alternate universe, building such close relationships that many ended up dating or marrying one another”, but it was sometime before the end of the sixth century.
…oh, right. Back in the second century we adopted a convention that one day in the real world was one year in our fictional planet of Micras. The sixth century would have been a little less than two years after we started, so early 2001. Since then various new societies have arisen with dozens of calendars of their own, but a few of us purists have kept the original one going.
And it is in that original calendar that we celebrated yesterday the turn of the sixth millennium. The year 5000 ASC. I – and others, there are still a few other people who have been around since the beginning – have been simulating Micras’ politics, mapping its contours, and writing its history for five thousand days.
It’s kind of terrifying how much of my life this one game has shaped.
It was my friend Eoin – Ard-Baron of Treesia and Fabon on Micras – who first convinced me to move to Ireland.
It was my friend Erik – founder and erstwhile Kaiser of Shireroth on Micras – who got a LiveJournal and convinced me to start blogging.
It was my friend James – Duke of Kildare on Micras – who first sat me down and told me I needed to start listening to good music and handed me some Ayreon and Nightwish – which shaped my musical tastes right up till the present.
It was my friend Ari – Duke of Straylight on Micras – who first linked me to Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and the rationalist community.
They say that if the fool persists in his folly, he will become wise. And even wasting several hours a day in constructed worlds gives you a couple of benefits, if you keep it up for thirteen years. Insofar as I can make webpages, it’s from my time as Shireroth’s Minister of Information. Insofar as I know Photoshop and graphic arts, it’s from my time as head of the Micronational Cartography Society, which maintains the physical and political maps of Micras. Insofar as I can write, it’s because of years painstakingly composing treaties and fake history books. Insofar as I can argue or convince, it’s from debates in fictional legislatures about whether or not to go to war with distant countries with names like “Baracão” and “Novikrasniystan”, run by a bunch of poli sci majors in London or computer geeks in Belgium or even stranger people even further afield.
More than that, though, it’s taught me about people. The total lack of rules or advance planning with which we constructed Micras gives it an amazing feature unmatched in any other role-play I know of: the game is exactly identical to the meta-game.
A country is a bunch of people coming together and claiming to be a country and doing country-like things (kind of like in reality). The king – or Shah, or President, or Premier, or Ayatollah – of the country is whoever can convince other people to call them the king and obey their orders (kind of like in reality). The country’s land is pretty much whatever land they can convince other people to accept they have (ibid). The constitution is whatever document you can convince everyone else to sign (…).
If one person wants to found their own single-person country, no one can stop them, but they’re less likely to be taken seriously or considered a Great Power. If lots of people come together to form a country, no one can stop them, but they had better be able to get along and agree on the rules. If you want to unite to ostracize somebody, no one can stop you, but you’d better be able to get more people on your side than they have on theirs.
If you want to claim you have a billion nuclear bombs, no one can stop you, but they’ll just say you’re a terrible simulation partner and ignore you when you say you bomb them. If you want to claim you are pure pacifists, no one can stop you, but then you better either have an alternate plan for protecting yourself (like strong allies) or be prepared to just absent yourself from the military simulation and annoy everyone else. If you want to write a history of your country that conflicts with histories everyone else has written, no one can stop you, but no one is going to take your history seriously either or build upon it or make it part of their canon.
As a result, while other geeks were learning how to calculate damage from Magic Missiles, I was learning how to manipulate consensus reality. I guarantee you one of these skills is more valuable than the other.
The skill of manipulating consensus reality seems more or less identical to the skill commonly called “leadership”. It is easy to underestimate. The whole gag of the comic strip Dilbert is underestimating leadership. These brilliant engineers do the actual hard work, and then some idiot just says “work faster!” or something similarly dumb and gets hailed as a leader and paid a much higher salary and given credit for the group’s success
Micras has been a sort of laboratory for leadership – countries mostly between one and thirty people, rising and collapsing on a scale of months to decades. After thirteen years I am at no risk of underestimating leadership. I have seen countries transition from Great Powers to smoking ruins within weeks after a new and less competent monarch succeeds the old. I’ve also seen tiny city-states led by someone who understands the methods of persuasion and balance-of-power politics take over an entire hemisphere through soft power.
Occasionally I have even been a leader myself. It’s not hard on Micras – gather two or three friends, start a small country, crown yourself King. Or join an existing country, build a power base, and get elected Prime Minister. Or if that’s too much for you, it’s never too hard to find jobs on the regional level. My own homeland of Shireroth has long operated with five Dukes, each ruling a fifth of the country’s territory, and the positions are noncompetitive enough that during one particularly complicated conspiracy I managed to attain a few of them under false personae.
But I’ve also held the real thing – the Golden Mango Throne of the Kaiser of Shireroth, widely agreed to be the most complicated and unrewarding leadership position on Micras. For a role with no real-world power or consequences, it’s amazing how stressful, time-consuming, and life-sapping it can be – and how much you learn by holding it. If I thought they would take me halfway seriously, I would strike some kind of lucrative deal with a business school to let their students “study abroad” in a Shirerithian leadership position. If nothing else, it would knock some humility into them really quickly.
I titled this post “Things I Learned By Spending Five Thousand Years In An Alternate Universe”, so I guess I should get into some actual lessons. This is probably the only “leadership advice” I will ever give, and I have no idea if it transfers to the real world, but here you go.
I think the most important thing I learned about leadership is to avoid it. It’s stressful, everyone blames you for everything, and “getting to make decisions” sounds a lot better before you realize how banal and annoying 99% of decisions are. But I also learned that large organizations tend to have a position that pretty much controls everything from behind the scenes but doesn’t have to cope with the appearance of power. In Shireroth it’s called “Steward”. In Westeros it was “King’s Hand”. I don’t know about the USA, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was “White House Chief of Staff”. These positions are a whole lot more fun, and surprisingly there’s a lot less competition for them.
Closely related is learning how many people are optimizing for appearance – which means if you’re optimizing for something else it’s pretty easy to strike compromises that give everyone what they want. If you’re fighting for control of a province, the compromise “your enemy gets an important sounding title like Archduke with almost completely ceremonial powers, and you get a boring sounding title like Undersecretary of Resource Management that controls the place’s economy and military” works a surprising amount of the time. Same with titling a bill “The X Party Wins Bill” and getting leading members of the X Party to support it and having the Y Party protest it angrily and not have any policy proposals of the X Party in it at all.
The third important thing I learned is to have a lot more respect for politicians and people in power. I think everyone should have the media perform a hatchet job on them at least once. It’s this really scary feeling when you know you’re trying to be honest and do the right thing, and yet you see how easy it is for a hostile writer to cast every single thing you do as corrupt and destructive. And how quick everyone is to believe them. And how attempts to set the record straight get met with outraged “how dare you give one of those typical sputtering non-apologies!”. It reminds me of those computer games where “ACCUSE” is just a button you press, and it doesn’t even matter what the accusation is or whether it makes sense. Once someone has invoked the genre of scandal, it will play out the same either way, proceeding deterministically along political lines until everyone reaches the usual compromise of agreeing you’re scummy and dishonest but not worth the trouble of impeaching.
The last important thing I learned is to be nice. It practically never fails that somebody who thinks they’re really cool joins Micras, makes fun of one of our admittedly disproportionate number of people with no real life or social skills, bullies and harasses them for months or even years…and then that person is the swing vote in an important election, or finds themselves sitting on a deposit of valuable rare earth metals everyone needs. My favorite cases are when neither of those two things happens, and the person just spends five years sorting out their issues and becoming smarter and more competent, and then ends up in charge of everything solely by their own merit. I am pleased to report they rarely forget how the bully behaved when they were young and stupid.
I don’t know how many of these lessons work in reality. I think at least some of them do. But also, I don’t think I learned any of these lessons on their own. They’re part of meta-lessons where my brain learned to grasp these concepts of status and popularity and negotiation. I don’t actually go into parties thinking “that guy there is the Duke of the room, and those guys there to the side are his Counts”, but I do think my brain is using circuitry that it developed in part for those sorts of calculations, and goodness knows I needed to get that circuitry somehow.
All this probably makes it sound like all we do on Micras is plot and conspire against each other, but that’s really only a small part of it. We are first and foremost conworlders, or geofictionalists, or that thing there’s no non-awkward word for which involves creating detail for alternate worlds (and which one of my girlfriends has a college degree in, by the way!)
If leading a country trains the mind, conworlding trains the soul. In fact, I sometimes feel like a good conworld is like a projection of the creator’s soul – like there’s some sense in which a reader of the Silmarillion understands Tolkien as a person on a deeper level even than one of his friends or family members might.
Micras is a collective conworld, but it’s a salad bowl and not a melting pot. Most people get their own country or province or island, develop its culture in their own image, and only then do they federate into nations or empires or hokey EU-style monstrosities.
The question “If you were a society, what kind of society would you be?” is strangely existential. Some people are bland liberal democracies. Some people are tropical island paradises. Some people are extremely efficient Singaporean city-states. But anyone at all interesting is something that has never quite existed before on Earth. Tolkien was the Elves. I don’t know much about Iain Banks, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he was the Culture.
One guy on Micras is a libertarian. He just sort of hangs around going “Yup, my country’s government still isn’t doing anything. Just hanging around punishing the initiation of force.” It’s very cute.
It makes you examine your soul, conworlding does. Over the centuries, changes in your outlook are mirrored by revolutions in your country’s government. The problems debated in its universities and great books are the problems you struggle with every day. Sometimes your values and aesthetics drift, and some fictional philosopher mirrors the change across a span of worlds. Very rarely, it is the fictional philosopher who makes a good point that the real you is forced to consider.
So far in thirteen years we’ve only had one person totally lose touch with reality and start believing his country was real and worshipping the deities of his own constructed religion and whatnot. I am pleased to say he eventually made a full recovery and is now a physicist. But – and I can’t speak for anyone else on Micras – there’s always this feeling. If you spend ten years building up a culture in your own image, you start to feel at home there. If your real-world society doesn’t fit you too well – if, like Bryan Caplan, you like to retreat within a bubble, then it’s hard not to start thinking of yourself as a citizen of a civilization that exists only in your dreams. If Tolkien never spoke Quenya to himself when he was alone, I will eat my hat.
Somewhere in the ocean hundreds of miles north of the Shirerithian mainland there is a mountainous arctic island upon which thrives an emergent oracular techno-theocracy that calls itself the Shining Garden of Raikoth. Its priests wear a silver spiral around their necks as a sign of their dedication, and in solidarity with them I too wear the spiral. But that is as far as it goes. No deity-worshipping. No speaking to myself in constructed languages. Just the spiral.
That and spending five thousand days of my life on it.
Link: Bastion Union, a major micronational portal that hosts Shireroth
Link: A description of the constructed society of Raikoth