By Joshua S. Fouts
Carnegie Council Senior Fellow
Chief Global Strategist, Dancing Ink Productions, LLC
In the wake of Google closing down its virtual world, "Lively," and Reuters noisily closing its Second Life office, you'd think that virtual worlds would warrant the Sturm und Drang predictions that have replaced an equally misguided first-round buzz of interest.
Maybe it's just growing pains.
Enter the United States Army.
Wired reporter Noah Shachtman recently blogged that the US Army will be opening up shop in the virtual world of Second Life over the next month. According to Shachtman, their effort "will actually consist of two virtual islands. One of them will serve as a ‘welcome center' with an information kiosk and the means to contact a recruiter." The other will offer virtual experiences like, "jumping out of airplanes, and rappelling off of towers and using a weapon."
I asked my friend Peter W. Singer, who is director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, and author of the upcoming book Wired for War -- what he thought of this. (Singer's program at Brookings is notable in that it was one of the first to host a session on the impact of Second Life on the future of politics -- Singer's wife Sue works for Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life).
"A lot of credit is due to the Army for being willing to take this first step," he emailed back. "It is a great way to connect to potential recruits, who it might not reach otherwise, through a growing medium. But I hope they don't just see it as merely an advertising tool. Just like many other organizations entering Second Life have found, there is a whole new world of possibilities, as well as perils, for them to learn more about."
It's indeed a wise decision for the Army. In our research for the Understanding Islam through Virtual Worlds project, CCEIA Senior Fellow Rita J. King and I encountered many people from around the world who found the experiences in virtual worlds offered them a safe environment in which to explore things with which they were unfamiliar. Why not present the Army in the same light? Stanford University researcher Jeremy Bailenson has already found that people take experiences in virtual worlds with them into the physical world. A May 12, 2008 Time magazine article reported "even 90 seconds spent chatting it up with avatars [in a virtual world] is enough to elicit behavioral changes offline."
The Army might also learn something about their potential recruits in Second Life that they might not learn otherwise from meeting them in person. In an interview I conducted in January 2008 with IBM executive Sandra Kearney, Global Director for Government Research Initiatives and Programs and the lead for many years behind IBM's Virtual Universe Community, she explained that work within virtual worlds has, "made obvious the value people have beyond the box they work in all day long. I'm able to leverage in the organization the passions and the skills that the employee has by what I learn from and about them in virtual worlds. It's addressing the whole person in a really different way."
But it's also a risk--one that I'm glad to see the government taking. Ironically, these kinds of chances seem to be lead by the military more than other parts of the government. For example, in May 2000, before online video games had fully entered into the psyche of advertisers and marketers, the US Army commissioned the creation of the video game "America's Army" which was released in 2002 and later turned into a wildly popular game exceeding even the Pentagon's expectations to become the number one online action game in 2004.
There's reason for hope that other parts of the US foreign and military apparatus are watching and learning. James Glassman, US Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, made a stunning announcement at the New America Foundation on December 1, 2008 about the State Department's "Public Diplomacy 2.0" efforts. Glassman, who is the "the government-wide lead in strategic communications, or war of the ideas," provides "leadership and coordination for … the Defense Department, the intelligence community, and beyond." In his speech, Glassman makes the case for the importance of integrating a full-fledged approach to Internet outreach, arguing that government needs to let go of its desire to control the message. "[I]n this new world of communications, any government that resists new Internet techniques faces a greater risk: being ignored. Our major target audiences – especially the young – don't want to listen to us lecture them or tell them what to think or how wonderful we are."
I found Glassman's words inspiring and exciting. In the fall of 2005, as director of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, I had the opportunity to brief Under Secretary Glassman's predecessor Karen Hughes before she took office as Under Secretary of State. Our group recommended that, among other things, she integrate games, virtual worlds and blogs into her public diplomacy outreach strategies. Nearly three years later, I'm thrilled to see that her successor has implemented all of those ideas and more. (Disclosure: Glassman's speech also mentions a January 12, 2009 event in Second Life in which he will be appearing that Rita J. King and I will be co-hosting as part of a project with the American University in Cairo.)
Glassman argued, as do we, that virtual worlds are no substitute for real world experiences. They serve, however, as excellent gateways to better understanding people or opportunities to augment or extend ideas – such as expanding and continuing relationships formed in exchange programs.
While the Army is considering Second Life, maybe they should also consider theater. A year ago, Rita J. King wrote about a play by the Scottish National Theater called "Blackwatch." The play, about the famed Scottish military regiment, described the collapse of the unit after their involvement in the War in Iraq. The play's tour in the US was funded by the British Council, the public diplomacy arm of the British Government. It shed unique insight into the British experience in the US-led War on Terror.
A few weeks ago I had a chance to get a better understanding of a US soldier's experience in the Iraq War. I was a participant in the off-Broadway production of "Surrender," a play co-written by my friend Josh Fox (who coincidentally played in a high school rock band with the aforementioned Wired journalist Noah Shachtman – Shachtman played bass) and Sergeant Jason Christopher Hartley, Iraqi War veteran and author of the extremely well-written "Just Another Soldier," about his experiences in the war in Iraq. The three act play allows you to either observe or participate. I chose to participate. I arrived a few minutes late and was rushed into a changing room where I was issued a standard military uniform while the sound of a drill sergeant (played by Jason Christopher Hartley) barked orders to a group to do push-ups until the latecomers were ready. The play began with training in basic combat techniques including a crash course in rifle handling, room clearing and engaging the enemy. In act two I was deployed with my squad, which consisted of actors and participants, although I did not know which was which breaking into darkened rooms under the deafening cacophony of helicopter gun ships, sirens, gunfire, screams all capped my squad and company leaders fevered commands. Each room offered a different panic-inducing scenario – from interrupting a tryst and having the paramours shoot at you, to encountering an otherwise innocent looking family who also then shot at us. Act three was our hallucinatory "reintegration" into society in which the various participants were required to act out the fate of their characters. This entailed reading lines from a teleprompter while actors responded accordingly. I played the part of a soldier who had to have his legs amputated and ended in a mental institution. Next it was determined, that I had a pre-existing mental condition and would not be receiving medical coverage.
The experience participating in Surrender was a powerful one. It radically changed my view of the experience of soldiers in urban ground combat.
Surrender is opening for one week only January 7 – 12. If you're in New York City and want to understand the Army, this is one virtual experience you don't want to miss. After that, try something little more relaxing like visiting the Army's virtual offices in Second Life.
cross posted at The Ethical Blogger
photo by Seb Ulysses