This is a very didactic, very silly game for understanding the weird politics that has previously happened and continues to happen behind the scenes of top-level domains, or that thing you put at the end of a URL in a browser. Probably better suited to older players, not necessarily for content but maybe more just because of the sheer degree of abstraction entailed.
Domain names are where the politics, poetics, and peculiarities of the web express themselves in often the most direct and clever ways. But even the most active domain name hoarder might not really understand how the Domain Name System works, why certain TLDs exist, and how they at times become an arena where real-world geopolitical conflicts play out online. This game is meant to walk players through some of those realities.
A lot of this gets into the deep weird weeds of internet governance, in particular how ICANN works. We’ve put together a reference page, but it is admittedly super, super broad; as of right now this game is probably easier and more fun to play with audiences that are a little more excited about…DNS and internet governance. Which might actually be like, four people
A Word Of Caution: We are bad at math! And still trying different variations on points allocation. If you find a better ratio for gameplay please let us know! We would love to hear from anyone who actually ends up using and playing this game.
Many thanks to the Radical Networks conference for letting us run a test of this game when we were initially working on it.
This takes place in a semi-fictional blank slate–none of the countries are real, assumes completely open namespace.
Players are assigned a type of TLD owner–ccTLD, gTLD, or secessionist region seeking a gTLD. Only one player can play as a scessionist region. Each player can come up with a name of their country and their TLD. (This has no impact on game mechanics, it’s just more fun that way.)
All players begin with an initial number of points, determined by throwing a dice and multiplying that number by 100.
All players have the baseline goal of maintaining a minimum of 500 points to achieve their gameplay goals. For ccTLDs that means political stability, for gTLDs that means enough points to buy a new domain, and for secessionist regions that means enough political support to obtain their own gTLD. During each round, players select cards that present scenarios that can help them increase their points or will lead them to lose points.
ccTLD and gTLD players both begin holding 1 TLD. They receive scarcity bonus points during each round, the amount of which is determined by throwing a dice and multiplying by 10. Scarcity points are a reflection of the fact that, as less and less domains are available, certain domains become more acceptable to use or more commonly used (for example, when Senator Ted Cruz was unable to obtain tedcruz.com and had to use tedcruz.org).
gTLDs can buy more TLDs with points over the course of the game. Again, they need 500 points to do this. Each TLD will receive a different scarcity bonus value.
Secessionists have only one goal in terms of the game: to get a domain. Once that’s achieved, they transition to playing as a gTLD (rather than a ccTLD, as certain governmental secnarios don’t really apply to them and you know, maybe they want to buy some internationalized TLDs in their native language).
Each round, players select one card from their particular character’s card set that will either arbitrarily assign them more points, make them lose points, or force them to make a decision that may affect the number of points they have. Cards are explained in further detail below.
Don’t explain what the cards actually mean or represent until a player pulls the card. At that point, refer to the real-world examples documented below to explain that particular card’s scenario. Our examples are, again, far from exhaustive; most of the best ones we borrowed from James Bridle’s Citizen Ex series. Thanks for being the best, James!
Realistically, you won’t actually ever get through that many rounds once you’ve gone through the different scenario cards, at which point we recommend either leading a discussion or watching the ICANN New gTLD videos
This is a set of points reflecting the scenario when a player’s TLD becomes more lucrative due to hype around being able to make interesting puns and jokes using it.
This is a scenario in which someone outside of a player’s country uses their TLD in a way that doesn’t necessarily reflect the country’s political or cultural experiences, and the player has to decide whether to allow that use of their TLD or intervene, potentially damaging their TLD’s reputation and position on the political stage or damaging their reputation in their country as a political leader.
Neat Real-World Example of This
.ly: Violet Blue’s “sex-positive URL shortener” vb.ly was deleted by the .ly domain registry in 2010 allegedly for not adhering to regulations for the TLD related to “text referring to adult content and offensive imagery.” Basically, pornography is illegal under Libyan law (which is not to say Sharia law, these are different) and although vb.ly was operating outside of Libya, it was still expected to adhere to Libyan law. Later that same year, access to less than four-letter .ly domains became restricted to Libyan residents.
This is a scenario in which political unrest within your country leads to your country being divided into multiple independent states, leading your current TLD being retired and new rules being established.
.yu: - Computer Scientists at the Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia, then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, registered the .yu domain in 1987.
When SFR Yugoslavia dissolved during the Yugoslav Wars beginning in 1991, the republic broke up into several smaller countries. Slovenia and Croatia quickly registered their own TLDs (.si and .hr, respectively, registered in 1993) but through a weird game of governance hot-potato the new Slovenian government now controlled the .yu TLD. and IANA facilitated the transfer fo the TLD from Slovenian hands to the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia via an association at the University of Belgrade.
In 2003, the FR Yugoslavia became Serbia and Montenegro, and the .cs ccTLD was registered for the newly named country. However, it didn’t really end up going into use. .yu ended up lingering for a while, basically being the only ccTLD that wasn’t based on an ISO code. In a way, it kind of didn’t make a huge difference since the Serbia and Montenegro split apart in 2006, which led to the creation of the .rs and .me TLDs. In 2007, ICANN handed control of .yu to the Serbian National Register of Internet Domain Names, with the intent of slowly phasing the TLD out and letting the domain expire, which it ultimately did in 2010.
In this scenario, a ccTLD hands over maintenance and management of their TLD to a third-party operator. They can choose to do this for lots of reasons, though the most common reason is that the country itself lacks the IT infrastructure to actually run a domain registry and needs assistance promoting the TLD. However, this choice comes with caveats–technically the players only receive a percentage of profits from the TLD.
Neat Real-World Example
.tv: The domain is currently operated by dotTV, a Verisign company; the Tuvalu government owns twenty percent of the company. In 1999, Tuvalu negotiated a contract leasing its Internet domain name “.tv” to a company formed by idealab for $50 million in royalties over a 12-year period. The Tuvalu government receives a quarterly payment of US$1 million for use of the top-level domain. With the first $1 million payment the government received, Tuvalu was finally able to afford the $100,000 it cost to join the United Nations. Lou Kerner joined .tv as its CEO in January 2000, and the company began selling .tv domain names in April 2000. Verisign acquired .tv in December 2001.
Another Neat Real-World Example
A few ccTLDs are managed by middlemen not necessarily by choice or in the service of financial gain or support. Some countries’ TLDs were registered early in the TLD creation process, and representatives from that country weren’t necessarily able to actually engage in the process.
.io: .io is one of the fastest-growing top-level domains on the internet, a particular favourite among start-ups and technology companies. It refers to the British Indian Ocean Territory, a remote but strategically-important scattering of islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, also known as the Chagos Archipelago. It consists of seven atolls and over 1,000 tiny islands.
All Chagossians were driven off the island starting around 1967, when Mauritius was declared independent from the British government and the islands were annexed from Mauritius, and they have not and probably will not ever be allowed to go home. The archipelago’s largest island is currently home to a U.S. military base, which has played a pretty cool role in propagating the war on terror.
All this to say, when ccTLDs were being registered Chagossians weren’t exactly prepared for it, which is where Paul Kane and the Internet Computer Bureau come in. Kane registered the TLD way back in 1997, and is just now reaping the benefits of the .io TLD. The ICB also manages 2 other British territory TLDs, .ac (Ascenion Islands) and .sh (St. Helena). Kane has previously stated with regard to the TLDs that “Each of the overseas territories has an account and the funds are deposited there because obviously the territories have expenses that they incur and it’s offsetting that.” Whether that’s actually true or whether the account Kane describes actually goes to a representative of the Chagossian people is entirely unclear.
While similar to the government collapse scenario, this more typically refers to chaos within a government more like a revolution or coup than confluence of several factions dissolving the nation. Players can choose a few secnarios to resolve or not resolve their conflict.
Neat Real-World Examples
.sy: Alongside the humanitarian crisis, one of the ways in which the Syrian conflict has been visible to the outside world is through its effect on the internet both inside and outside the country. In 2012, as the rebel groups were making some of their largest early advances against the government, Syria disappeared from the internet almost entirely. On the 29th of November, almost all networks within Syria became inaccessible from the outside world - and what reports did leak out suggested that mobile and landline links inside the country were down as well.
.ly: Libya’s two governments, as well as other splinter groups, are competing over the ability to communicate officially via the internet, and in places it comes down simply to who holds the login details: “the government domains are distributed between the two parties and it depends on who has the password which allows them to change the details of the domain.
For a non-recognized nation-state or cultural entity to receive a TLD, they have to do a bunch of things. One of those things is submit letters of support from government and cultural bodies, as well as businesses and individuals with a connection to the region or entity seeking a domain.
.cat: Created in 2005 after extensive lobbying, payment, and the pursuit of letters of support from the Spanish and French governments, this TLD is dedicated to the promotion of Catalonian culture and identity. While it has the potential to be an incredibly lucrative TLD given all the domain hacks that can be applied to it, the requirement that .cat sites promote the Catalonian language in some respect has somewhat limited its expansion.
.scot: Created in 2014 to promote Scottish culture and identity, and kind of a fun detail in the efforts for Scottish secession that came up last year.
Sometimes in the process of seeking out a TLD, a secessionist/cultural identity finds themselves scooped. Another gTLD service will basically swoop in and snag the sought-after TLD. This is a huge bummer.
.cymru: In 2014, the Welsch organization DotCYM got its wish for a Welsh-language domain, but not for control of it. ICANN created both .cymru and the English-language .wales domains, but they were delegated to Nominet, the English company which runs .uk. To add insult to injury, when Nominet launched its sales websites for the new domains, it used Google Translate to produce the Welsh content.
.cymru is also interesting as an example of the limitations of the internet’s preferred languages–which is to say, preferred character encodings. Like the minority or unrecognised groups passed over by ISO country codes, minority and non latin languages were also poorly served historically. Some of this has to do with the fact that until the 1980s the internet used ASCII encoding to display text. The expansion of “internationalized” TLDs with Unicode encoding has opened up new possibilities in this space, though honestly the complexity of this topic led us to not really get deep on that for today.
Similar to the ccTLD scenario, but generally the politics have less to do with cultural identities and more to do with money and power.
.sucks: The Canadian company Momentous acquired the .sucks TLD in 2014 after a private auction between the company and fellow gTLD purveyor Donuts. It’s been mired by concerns over defamation and intellectual property for reasons that are probably pretty self-evident (also, Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission filed an objection to the TLD because of the possibility it might be used for pornographic sites, shruggie).
Momentous, through their subsidiary Vox Populi, in some ways is kind of just running an extortion scheme through this TLD. During the “sunrise” registration period for the TLD they set up a “Trademark Clearinghouse” as a mechanism for allowing corporations to register a .sucks domains in advance–at the price of about $2500 a domain. (Stories about this TLD like to note how Taylor Swift has already acquired taylorswift.sucks, which like, of course she has.)
This is the round where players can obtain more gTLDs. Most gTLDs are owned by a select number of companies, basically because it’s a pretty expensive process to even request a TLD let alone receive it. Usually, these gTLDs are registered by wholly owned subsidiaries of the larger companies.