Over there, over there,
Send the word, send the word, over there --
That the (virtual-militarized-avatar-) Yanks are coming,|
The (virtual-militarized-avatar-) Yanks are coming,
The (digital) drums rum-tumming
So prepare, say a pray'r,
Send the word, send the word to beware.
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back till it's over
-- "Over There" (1917), a popular patriotic song penned by George M. Cohan celebrating U.S. entry into World War I (which earned Cohan a medal from Congress) -- with updates (2003) by Nick Turse (who expects no such medal for his efforts).
In the last week of October, There, Inc, a Silicon Valley start-up, launched a new subscription-based on-line game, "There" -- as in not Here but Elsewhere. Billed as a "getaway" ("game" is a verboten term in There's new world of on-line experiences), it is actually similar to other online role-playing games like Electronic Art's "Sims On-line" and Sony's "EverQuest," but, say its creators, it will let gamers create far more realistic and expressive virtual personas than those of other games. Using digital characters capable of subtle human-like gestures, such as making eye contact, sighing and blinking, There looks to further blur the line between real and virtual worlds. Its promise is a virtual world where individuals can engage in a wide variety of (PG-13 only) activities, including designing homes and clothes, going to parties, traveling around the game's virtual environment on "hover boards" and dune buggies and listening to music.
Perhaps the most important passion There promotes is shopping. Its makers have created a whole on-line shared world where you can actually spend perfectly real dollars. Players can put down hard-earned real world money to purchase "Therebucks," game money for virtual shopping and then enter There-world where it will be possible for a price (thanks to marketing agreements with Nike and Levi's) to cloth one's persona, known as an "avatar," in brand-name virtual basketball sneakers and jeans. Players can also spend real money to entertain their avatars and provide them with tickets to virtual events, customized vehicles and digital houses. Due to a partnership with iVillage Inc., a female-focused media company, a special zone (aimed specifically at women) within the There world will allow avatars to access iVillage services, including astrological and love-compatibility reports.
Players who beta-tested the game shelled out, on average, $7 per month in real money to outfit their avatars, but some spent over $1000 to become virtual fat-cats; and one even created the "Bank of There," letting real people change Therebucks back into actual American dollars. There, Inc. is banking on revenue from monthly fees and yearly subscriptions, as well as the purchase of Therebucks. But the company has another revenue stream -- and it happens to be the U.S. Army.
In June 2003, There, Inc. signed a $3.5-million, multiyear contract with the Army to create a There-like virtual environment for warfare-simulation training (one that the avatars of consumption in their other universe won't be able to make their way into -- not yet anyway). Basically, the company's designers are building "life-like" milieus, depicting various regions of the world -- imagine a virtual Afghanistan -- where young American soldiers, already well-prepared avatars of an on-line lifestyle, can train against unpredictable opponents like virtual terrorists possessing complex organizational and personal strengths and weaknesses, while employing novel weapons and strategies.
One project already underway is the creation of a virtual Kuwait that can be used to train personnel to anticipate and defend against an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait City. According to James Grosse, a principal investigator for the Army's Simulation Technology Center in Orlando, Florida, There Inc.'s application will allow greater participation by larger numbers of players than other simulation environments developed either in the military or commercial worlds. That's saying a lot considering how many video games and simulators the U.S. military is involved with. (For more see: Bringing the War Home: The New Military-Industrial-Entertainment Complex at War and Play.)
Andy Donkin, the chief marketing officer of There, Inc., questioned about his company's military dealings by Gamespot magazine, was asked, "Does politics play in role in your business plan, or is all business good business?" He answered:
Remember, There was started almost six years ago in what now seems like a very different world. Terrorist attacks were not part of the US mindset. However, the founders built There around some key ideas, and it's those ideas that have put us together with the military. Ideas like: real-world physics, subtle detail of in-world conversations and body language, and the concept of There as a planet the size and shape of the earth. I don't think any of this was done with the military in mind. Today, we live in a world where warfare is unconventional and the military needs "real-world" simulations with all of its unpredictability. As we mentioned, because There is a platform, we can separate the consumer business from what we are creating for the military. We were very lucky with the military, and, frankly, our product spoke for itself.
In May 2002, the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Programs Association (DARPA) came calling, was thoroughly impressed by There's technology and the rest, as they say, is history. Like There's creators, who eschew "game" for "getaway," Jack Thorpe, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who 20 years ago began creating the Pentagon's network of training simulators called Simnet, commented, "I don't see it as a game. I see it as a communication system that's going to allow us to think about our relationships differently." Wow… all this talk of communicating, of relationships, and of a chance encounter between There and DARPA on a moon-lit night… what a romantic scenario. Actually, though, it's surprising that the company wasn't in bed with the military from the start – and you don't even need an iVillage "love-compatibility report" to know why!
There, Inc. has raised some $37 million in venture capital since its inception back in 1998. Its largest single, non-employee-based source of financing appears to be from the venture-capital firm Sutter Hill Ventures. Sutter Hill was formed way back in 1962 with investments from three prime players in the academic wing of the military-industrial complex: Stanford ($37,637,000 in Department of Defense funding for 2000), Princeton ($13,659,000 in 2000) and Yale ($7,000,000 in 2000). Sutter Hill Ventures, by the way, also owns a sizeable share of Virage, Inc. which, in 2001, won the DARPA Tibbetts Award for research and innovation.
There, Inc. itself was co-founded by Jeffrey Ventrella, an expert on artificial life from MIT's Media Lab -- a research center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (aka: "the Pentagon on the Charles") that currently boasts research contracts with the U.S. Air Force, the Department of the Army, and DARPA. Brett G. Durrett, There Inc.'s Vice President of Operations, co-founded and was CEO of Asylum Entertainment which developed video games for THQ -- the company which put out "Full Spectrum Warrior," the civilian version of the Army's "Full Spectrum Command" combat simulator. Talk about the Web -- as in web of relationships. In fact, the There team has ties all across the military-industrial-academic-entertainment complex.
Exactly how the Army will use the militarized virtual worlds of There isn't yet fully known, of course. According to James Grosse, a principal investigator for the Army's Simulation Technology Center in Orlando (interviewed in the San Francisco Chronicle):
It's still unclear how the [There] program will be used… It could be used by students at military universities like West Point, by soldiers out in the field or by intelligence agents… Officials have also discussed using civilian college students -- already versed in online games -- to play roles such as terrorists.
College kids as virtual terrorists? The Army fighting digital battles in virtual worlds using a platform that also allows real-world humans to transform into avatars and spend actual dollars for cyber-shoes? If that doesn't blur the line between the real and the virtual, what does? Who would have thought that there would be only one degree of separation between the women's on-line community of iVillage, which counsels parents that "seeing real human beings killed with the precision and repetition of a video game can have a numbing effect on children" and proclaims "War is not a game" and the U.S. Army?) Moreover, who would believe that the connection between them would be a company willing to transform gaming into shopping and games into war and that imagines teens and young adults (whether at West Point or civilian colleges) as its most likely customers?
It's impossible to know where the military's going with this project, but it sounds like they're already off in left (or is it right?) field, so beware, because they're not likely to come back till it's over, over there.
Nick Turse, a graduate student, devotes much of his time to studying the fall-out of the Vietnam War, especially Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among Vietnam veterans for Columbia University's Department of Epidemiology.
Copyright 2003 TomDispatch.com