Think The Government Is Doomed? See If You Can Build A Better One In ‘SEED’

Games are a potent way of looking at the world. We use the language of teams, scoring, plays, and counter-plays to describe warfare, politics, the law, and more. Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga went so far as to say that games are the defining human activity in his 1938 classic, Homo Ludens.

But outside academia, games are rarely used as tools for understanding society. Berlin-based independent studio Klang aims to change that with its upcoming massively multiplayer simulation, Seed, which is early in development.

The whole idea is that we want the game to spin out of what the players decide to do and create

To add weight to Seed‘s intellectual ambitions, Klang brought on one heck of a ringer. Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig is a world-renowned scholar of constitutional law, a liberal political activist, and onetime presidential candidate. He’s spent a career studying governance in the abstract, and helping to shape it in the real world. Now he’s applying that experience to developing the in-game political framework for Seed.

We spoke to Lessig and Klang co-founder Mundi Vondi earlier this summer about Seed and the team’s ambitious goals for pushing the boundaries on what games can do and be.


Describe any game as “massively multiplayer,” and most gamers will likely make a few assumptions. You run around killing things for experience points, gathering loot, and cooperate with teammates to kill a big enemy at the end. That’s weirdly specific description for a term that really only describes how many people can play, but that’s how dramatically World of Warcraft’s success has reshaped the industry.

Seed will look nothing like the MMORPGs you’re used to. In the game, You control several characters living in an upstart community as part of an effort to populate a new planet in a new solar system. You are responsible for your characters’ health and happiness. You have to make sure they have a roof over their head and food in their belly, such that they and their community can continue to grow and thrive.

Unlike conventional online games, Seed will keep running with all of its denizens 24/7, whether you’re actively playing or not. “This was essential to us,” Vondi explained, “because online communities tend to turn into ghost towns when players are offline — for more than 90 percent of their daily lives they’re not actually in the game.” For Seed to really work as a simulation, it can’t have only a fraction of its population present at any given moment. This is because absolutely everything in Seed, from the environment to every item bought and sold, is driven by players.

In practice, it’s a massively multiplayer take on The Sims. You only control the characters indirectly, however, setting tasks and schedules for when they should work, sleep, and enjoy free time (similar to systems in management sim games like RimWorld). Artificial intelligence, taking into account any number of mood-affecting factors, will determine what the characters actually do from moment to moment, which is why the player isn’t necessary for their continued existence.

“What we’re going for basically is that there’s a lot of Butterfly Effects that we’re building up,” Vondi said. “So you can imagine for instance a character that doesn’t sleep in a bed because the player didn’t give him one, so he doesn’t show up to his job the next day, and the restaurant where he works gets in trouble because they’re short-staffed, which might affect another person who’s eating there, and so on — it has a trickling effect.”

Other online games, such as EVE Online and Albion Online, have experimented with managing player-driven virtual societies before, allowing players to shape the in-game world through economics — production, supply, and demand. This allows for dynamic in-game systems, but within prescribed boundaries. What separates Seed is the extent of the control players will have over all the systems of governance and economics. Players within communities will collectively decide how they want to govern themselves, ranging from major decisions like whether to be a democracy or a monarchy, to more fine-grained policy-making like open carry laws and income taxation rates.


As a world-renowned scholar of political science, this is where Lessig’s expertise comes to bear. He helped design the systems for how communities in Seed will make these collective decisions, mapped out a conceptual paper of these options and trade-offs earlier in the year, and spent the month of July embedded with the studio in Berlin to help flesh it out in practice.

More than just an interesting opportunity for experimentation, Lessig sees this a way to give players a direct hand in shaping their play experience into what they want:

“Obviously people don’t come to a game like this to practice model U.N., they come to play and build communities and I really think about the governance as a kind of utility that we offer them to make it so that their gaming experience will be more rewarding and more fruitful.”

Lessig and Vondi both said part of the impetus behind Seed is the tenuous state of many democracies around the world. Lessig recalled their first real meeting about the game the morning after President Trump’s election.

“I remember that morning feeling like things seemed so hopeless, and it was a wonderful escape to be at the Seed studios talking to developers about what we can do with it…

“We’ve got real challenges with democracy in the real world. At least in my country it’s not working well, if at all. So what was really intriguing to me was the idea that here we could create an environment where there could be many tens of thousands of experiments with different forms of governance. It might be that we can actually learn something about which forms work best in this context, and it might be that that helps us understand something about the same question in the real world.”

Using Seed as a tool to gain understanding about societies is built into the foundation of the project. Vondi explained how the game will launch with tools designed for collecting and modeling the huge amounts of data that Seed will produce.

“I would love to see people outside the game take all that data and build models to look at it more deeply than what we would think to do, and that’s the exciting part,” Vondi said. Social scientists and other researchers have already found ways to squeeze useful information out of existing online games, but Seed will be the first game built from the ground up with this in mind.

As a scholar, Lessig is particularly interested in building a game that “would help political scientists and constitutionalists think about what’s the relationship between these forms of governance and the kinds of activities it encourages.” Down the road, he road, he hopes data from the game could even be studied.


“Games aren’t anymore just these simple entertainments,” Vondi mused, “but they can be tools for understanding, which is an elevation from your average story- or action-driven experience.” He mentioned the famous Corrupted Blood Plague from World of Warcraft — when a boss’ contagious spell ended up accidentally escaping a dungeon and infecting the game in a way that epidemiologists found perfectly matched how real-world diseases spread — as an inspiration for Seed: “Obviously that was a mistake, but if that was to be the focus you could take it much further. It’s going to be a simulation, rather than a fully controlled game.”

Although Vondi’s co-founders came from EVE Online developer CCP, he himself has no professional gaming background. His background is in fine art, production, and filmmaking. He feels that bringing in more outside perspectives like his own and that of Lessig will be instrumental for helping games escape, “the stigma that they are all driven by nerds and male-oriented adventure-seekers.” While Vondi and Lessig are of course nerdy men themselves, their interests in Seed seem unrecognizable next to the power fantasies of typical, mainstream video games. Vondi hopes that bringing a high-profile intellectual like Lessig into gaming will set an example for others outside the field to come and add their voices.

For Lessig, the project extends beyond his professional interests and into the personal as well: “Frankly, my closest connection to games right now is the obsession of my sons. I’ve got a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old” – “Hello!” a young voice interjects into the call — “they’re here playing a game right now. Just watching the fascination and the way these games take over their whole perspective and their life has been both interesting and worrisome. I’m eager to get into a project that gives me a closer touch to that part of their life.”

Lessig is one of those rare academics willing to put his money where his mouth is, running for the Democratic nomination in the most recent primary on the platform of campaign finance reform he’d been developing through his scholarship. Seeing the powerful effect that games have on his children gives Seed compelling personal stakes for him, as he recognizes the immense potential for both growth and abuse in the flourishing, young medium.

Video games are at an exciting turning point as a medium. Seed is very early in development, but it presents a fascinating vision of gaming’s potential future, designed from the ground up as both entertainment and a tool for the social sciences. It will be available on PC in some form in 2018.

To view the article in full, visit:

'Governance in the Real World Is So Fucked:' Lawrence Lessig Is Working on an MMO

‘Seed’ will allow players to build a society together, from the ground up.

Robinson Crusoe is an instructive fable for politics. Not because Crusoe forged a utopian world for himself using a few tools that survived a shipwreck, but because, as Marxist economists have noted, most retellings of the story ignore where the tools came from. Crusoe was a slaver, and political-economy tends to ignore its spoiled seed. Utopias are rarely what they seem on the surface.

An upcoming online multiplayer game called, coincidentally, Seed , will cast players as so many Robinson Crusoes, thrown into a virtual world with few pre-set parameters where they are tasked with forging a robust political system. The game's political mechanisms are being designed by none other than Lawrence Lessig, the legendary constitutional scholar who unsuccessfully ran for president last year.

Lessig isn't chasing utopia with Seed, but he is intensely interested in finding out what happens when people are given the skeleton of a trade economy and left to their own devices. Maybe, just maybe, something better than what we have now in the real world will emerge. Or maybe not.

Seed is still in the works and won't be released until 2018, but the idea is to have players control in-game characters that exist in communities with other players. These avatars live out their lives in simulation even when players aren't online, and each real-world week is a year in the game. These communities will be given immense latitude to determine the terms of their political existence, from monarchy to direct democracy.

These communities will also trade with each other within an economy that will be initially pre-programmed, but will eventually give way to player rules as communities trade with each other and set their own prices. Some communities may even opt out of this global capitalist trade regime entirely. It's worth noting that several of the co-founders and staff of the game company behind SeedBerlin-based studio Klang, also worked on EVE Online , an interstellar multiplayer game that features a robust in-game economy.

To find out what it means for Lessig to work on this project in the age of Trump and fascism on the march, and how Seed can give us insights into real-world politics, I chatted with Lessig and Klang CEO Mundi Vondi over Skype.

Motherboard: We're in a very tense and tumultuous political moment. What does it mean for you to design a game like this in the age of Trump, and after your own presidential bid?

Lawrence Lessig: The evolution of this project is quite funny. I was actually in Berlin the day after the election. I woke up that morning to see the results, and had this meeting set up with Mundi and his team to talk about the game. And it was a surreal feeling, like, governance in the real world is so fucked. We have to start thinking about how to build it in the virtual world.

Obviously, I have strong views in the real world about how to build democracy. But in the virtual world, I'm not interested in pushing my personal views. I am really interested in creating a platform where people can choose these very different forms of governance, and my hope is we can step back and see what works. If we have 100,000 game communities out there all choosing their own forms of government, and we have five stable forms that they were choosing between, data scientists could say, "Jeez, democracy with randomly elected leaders is killing every other form of governance!" That would be very interesting and valuable, I think.

Will the Seed community be moderated if, say, it gets brigaded by 4chan and anti-semitic or explicitly Nazi imagery makes it into the game? 

Mundi Vondi: I think we need to stay open to the trolls and all that grief. Obviously, with anything super brutal like Nazi or racist propaganda, we can remove those players from the game. But when it comes to them playing as brutally as those dictators acted, we need to allow that to see the results and effects. It's important to allow really harsh gameplay. I'd imagine that it will start off very chaotic, and players will be on a rampage, and out of these ashes a more civilized community will arise because the benefits are always going to be greater—you naturally gain by being more organized. As the game grows we'll see more reasonable communities.

Lawrence, in an op-ed explaining your presidential run , you wrote that democracy is not a utopia. There are concrete antagonisms to address and steps to be taken in order to dig ourselves out of the hole we're in. Is Seed a game about political utopias, or political fantasies?

LL: I don't think it's utopian in any sense. The effort in creating and maintaining communities in Seed is real effort—it's not a simple gift. But I think we can learn a lot about what sorts of governance structures help people to flourish in these spaces. Maybe that doesn't translate to the real world, but maybe it does. I think that the opportunity to have this massive experiment in different forms of governance, simultaneous and real, is pushing us in the direction of improving our forms of governance or at least giving us a map of how to improve them. That's what's most interesting to me.

So, Seed focuses on collective decision-making. In politics, laws are a form of collective decision-making, but we often don't think of collectivism with regards to that and many people actively reject ideas of collectivism when it comes to governance. What do you hope players will take away from being forced, basically, to consider their political choices as being part of a larger collective? 

LL: The extent to which collective decision-making affects your day-to-day living inside of Seed depends fundamentally on what the political structure of your community is. If you decide to have a monarch, then all the decisions are made by the monarch and you don't have any ongoing daily decisions. You could live in a representative democracy like Germany or the US, where you spend time deciding on your representatives and then they make decisions for you. But that might seem burdensome to some people, so they might choose a different form of representative democracy.

One of the options that I hope we implement is a representative democracy, but like in ancient Athens, all the leaders are randomly selected and they have to spend a cycle making decisions for everybody. That way, there's no politicking but it is representative. These are the kind of trade-offs that we want to enable so the community can decide how many cycles they want to spend on collective governance versus the other cool parts of the game.

MV: We're putting a lot of weight into how these decisions affect your gameplay. You don't just buy a new character and they pop into existence; you have to breed and raise them, and send them to school. As a player you should feel close to your character, so if they're being pushed around by some asshole who's governing, you'll get mad about that. There's all kinds of things you'll be able to find out—even if a monarchy is successful, you might have very low happiness. "Playing with fire" is one way to look at it, but having a tool where we can pick out some of this information is very valuable.

How optimistic are you about the politics of Seed , versus real-world politics right now? 

LL: I'm more optimistic about the politics of Seed than the real world, because the interests that have corrupted the real world are entrenched and powerful. But they haven't had a chance to develop in Seed. i think it starts with a little bit of a blank slate. But, it's not a guarantee, and who knows how things will develop over time? But my expectation is that we'll start in a better place.


Law professor Lawrence Lessig: Vast online games need a political structure

If you create an online world, would it turn into some kind of utopia or a hate-filled reality like The Lord of the Flies? And can game developers do anything about which way it goes?

Lawrence Lessig thinks so. A law professor at Harvard University and a constitutional law expert, he has been helping new democracies form legal frameworks for new constitutions, and now he is participating in an interesting test by helping Berlin-based independent game developer Klang build the political framework for the upcoming massively multiplayer online game Seed.

Lessig doesn’t want to dictate some ideal form of governance like a model United Nations. He thinks that players should have a choice about how they govern themselves in an online world, and he also believes that players shouldn’t be burdened with political structure until they need it.

Most games pay heed to their economic structures so that the game can generate revenue for the developer. But Lessig believes a political system is also necessary for players to believe that they should invest their time in the game.

Seed is an online multiplayer world that will also have a lot of artificial intelligence, and it uses Improbable’s SpatialOS platform for cloud games. Improbable is an online games infrastructure company that recently raised $502 million from Japan’s SoftBank. Klang itself has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Greylock Partners, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito, and Unity founder David Helgason.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

GamesBeat: We don’t see a name like Lawrence Lessig on many games we cover. How did this come to be?

Lawrence Lessig: I met Mundi in Iceland by accident, at somebody’s house. He described this game, this universe they were building. We had a long conversation about the theory, the ideas behind games. I’ve taught a course at Stanford with Julian Dibbell, who wrote about games for Wired for a long time, about virtual worlds and gaming. It’s always interested me.

After talking for a while, we moved on to how they were going to govern these places, the structure for governing. It was clear that no one had really thought through that much. That’s what began our conversation about whether there was something fun to experiment with here.

GamesBeat: Covering online worlds, people always use the terminology of the in-game economy. But they don’t always add the notion of an in-game political system. Is that something new here?

Lessig: Most people don’t add it because it’s such a boring problem. [Laughs] Most people don’t think about anything interesting when they think about governance. Obviously the game they’re building isn’t a governance game, but what everyone realizes is that, especially when you invest such an incredible amount of your time and energy into building places for playing a game like this, you need some confidence about how the place will evolve.

What we’ve been talking about are ways to give people in the game options for how they’d like that governance to happen. The options range from the simplest, most minimal—basically, from as little government as possible, to things like monarchy or different forms of democracy. You can randomly select people for office. We want to enable, in the lowest-cost way possible, the lowest number of cycles, to enable these different options, and see how these worlds evolve. Which ones work well? Which ones cohere with the kind of gaming that’s happening?

I obviously start with no clear intuition. Just an eagerness to see how this might evolve.

GamesBeat: Why do you think it’s also in some ways necessary? When I think of some of the politics that happens inside games, I think of player revolts that occasionally happen when developers change the rules or do something users don’t like. Usually they have no form of representation to communicate back to the developer. In some ways, I can see why some kind of system could be important.

Lessig: That’s the exact kind of case that motivates the desire to think about a structure of governance that gives people confidence they need to invest the time the game wants them to invest. But on the other hand, we don’t want to set up a model United Nations and expect everybody to hang out and debate the topics of the day. The way I’m thinking of it, it’s quite functional. The question is, “How can we structure it to allow it to serve its function of providing security and confidence for people playing the game, so they’re more willing to play the game?”

What I hope to see from it is that we can learn something about which of these structures works most easily, is most coherent with the spirit of people playing the game. I want to structure it in a way that allows us to observe, across a wide of range of worlds, exactly what seems to work and what doesn’t. It’s a wonderful environment to both serve the function of building confidence inside the game, but also let us learn an enormous amount about what types of rules structures and templates for governance tend to work better than others.

GamesBeat: One of the particular real-world problems I’ve seen is a company changing the pricing on virtual items. They got more expensive to buy with your time relative to buying them with money. That caused a big ruckus among the different clans and groups of people in the game. The clans held a boycott. But there were different competing interests. Some of them publicly supported the boycott, but then played the game anyway to try to get an edge on people who’d stopped playing. Another group offered to leave the boycott if the developer would favor them specifically.

Lessig: One of the interesting trade-offs here—my original work in the area of the law of cyberspace was to try to emphasize the way in which technology itself can be a kind of law. Code is law. When you imagine something like what you’re talking about – a set of players in a game wanting to effect a boycott – that boycott could be effected through an agreement. Everybody all says they want to boycott. Or in principle you could imagine a boycott being effected through code. We’re going to lock ourselves into a boycotting behavior.

It’s not clear which is more conducive to building strong communities. Many people think that the more you embed in code, the weaker the community that you develop becomes. People need to learn how to do things for the right reasons, as opposed to being forced to do them by technology. That’s one of the complicated trade-offs. There’s no way to answer that question in theory. You have to play it out and see what works and what doesn’t. This might be a context where we can do that kind of experimentation and see.

GamesBeat: Are there some things you’ve studied outside of games that can apply here, figuring out this game’s political system?

Lessig: In my day job I’m a constitutional law professor. I’ve done a lot of work in developing and building constitutions in developing nations. I did some work in Georgia in the post-communist period. I study and teach comparative constitutional law. When I was originally talking to Mundi about this, it was recognizing that in some sense, this is a problem I live with in my ordinary work as a law professor. We don’t ever really have an effective context in which to build and test these different structures.

There are lots of different kinds of democracy. The ability to imagine how you can structure the tradeoffs among them—this is a way to bring to life the kind of work I do in comparative constitutional law. That’s what made it exciting and interesting for me. We obviously are just beginning to map out how it can work. It’s an overriding objective that the work that we’re thinking about through governance structures not interfere, but just enable activities inside these worlds. I want to see this develop very slowly. It’s important that it’s developing at the ground level so we can do it the right way.

GamesBeat: I’ve seen a couple of clear tribes of people in different online games. There are the people who spend very little money but a lot of time to earn their status, and then there are people who spend a lot of money, which makes the world profitable for developers. They both seem like necessary groups, but they have different interests. I wonder how, when a game developer has millions of players—you can’t talk to everyone. Do they set up some kind of structure to communicate with the wealthiest players, or the players who spend the most time?

Lessig: Part of the question here is who should be deciding that. For the same reason you had this insight now, about this symbiotic relationship where both are necessary, you can imagine the community itself enabling some kind of preference or special connection for some, because they’re seen to be more valuable inside the community. From my perspective, we need to come in without any biases about that. We need to think, in a very efficient way, how to enable the community to make those kinds of decisions and implement them. And when they implement them, do they implement them technically, or do they implement them through understandings that are enforced by norms?

I think what we’ll see is that these different communities will have different objectives. Those objectives might fit with different forms of governance. One thing that’s argued about in the real world is that it might be better to have a democracy where, instead of having elections for people who want to represent others, you just randomly select 500 people to be the legislature. It’s a pretty low-cost way to govern, because if they’re really representative, those 500 people can speak for the group, and nobody has to worry about campaigning or anything like that.

You can imagine that becomes an attractive way for certain communities to govern themselves, where the people in those communities have no desire to engage much in politics. They just want to make sure that somebody is in place assuring that the system continues to work in a way appropriate for the community. But that could be very different in another community where people feel committed to developing a robust public recognition, and as they do that they want to be more engaged and participating in it. If we can enable these communities to make choices about the appropriate form they want, then I think much of the energy involved can take care itself. We can learn a lot from what’s working and not working.

GamesBeat: I’ve heard before that some game companies also have a sort of VIP concierge for their most active or richest players. That seems to have a parallel in our government, where lobbyists draw the attention of lawmakers.

Lessig: The lobbying system–nobody ever planned it like that. The frequent flyer system at airlines is kind of the same thing, except people did plan it like that. Obviously frequent flyers are valuable to airlines. At this stage it’s impossible to look inside the worlds of the game we’ll develop to have a sense of what will make sense there. But from my perspective, the objective is just to make sure that whatever does make sense can be developed collectively in the easiest way possible.

GamesBeat: It’s almost like you’re trying to create the structure, but not dictating the details.

Lessig: It’s important to make two qualifications about it. Yes, we want to enable the structure. We don’t want to dictate the substance of what the structure decides. I think we also don’t want to dictate that people spend much time worrying about the structure. Everybody expects these worlds will develop in incredibly rich ways and there will be all sorts of activity happening long before anybody worries about the question of how they’ll be governing themselves. The governance questions will emerge. Problems will come up and the communities of these worlds will have to work out how they deal with those problems. That’s when the taste for making these kinds of governance choices will emerge, the way it should naturally emerge.

Again, the objective is not to attract a whole bunch of people who want to debate the issues of the world. It’s just that people need the trains to run on time, which means you need governance that works, so let’s figure out the best way to make governance happen.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting to me that in-game economics have been studied and theorized and talked about a lot in the games business, but politics haven’t so much. And yet when you think about it, this is probably the precursor to the Metaverse. If we’ll eventually all live in this kind of virtual world, it really does matter.

Lessig: It does. But what’s so exciting about this to me is that—in other online contexts, when governance questions come up, the infrastructure or the context in which those questions can be answered is really underdeveloped. Nobody thinks about that up front. You can have a conflict over changes in pricing or whether things can be traded or not, and then at that stage you have to have a way of resolving that conflict. Bulletin boards or other messaging systems become the infrastructure for that kind of resolution.

Obviously that’s incredibly inefficient. It’s all ad hoc. It’s conceived and implemented way too late in the game. What’s exciting about this is that the commitment is to try to think through these questions up front. Again, not to insist that anybody confront them or deal with them. We’re not saying the first 10 preference settings you have to make are governance settings. But at least to have it so that when these questions emerge – and they will emerge, given the economies of these places – there’s an obvious and efficient way to deal with them.

And not just one way to deal with them. It’s both the idea that we’re talking about how to deal with this up front and the idea that we’re not dictating one particular system over another. If a particular world wants to have a dictator who gets to exercise to arbitrary power however they want, have at it. That’s the choice of the world. But if we can enable these choices in a simple, efficient way, then I think we’ll see much more innovation around making governance work than when it’s an incredible hassle to imagine gathering everybody into a forum and having an argument about something.