The avatar who's giving me a guided tour of MyBase—the first virtual Air Force base—is wearing wings. And I don't mean the kind you pin on your shirt. Real ones, protruding from her back. Because she can fly. Of course, so can I. Or rather, my avatar can. Which makes me wonder why I should bother to take MyBase's virtual P-51 for a ride, when all I have to do to become airborne is hit the "Home" button on my keyboard.
Perhaps I should explain.
Last December, the U.S. Air Force opened a new area in the virtual community known as Second Life, where cartoon-like avatars interact in a cartoon-like world. It's like The Sims, except that every Sim you meet is being controlled in real time by some flesh-and-blood person somewhere. According to Linden Labs, the company that owns Second Life, there were more than 1.3 million logins during the last two months (although it's not clear how that translates to the number of people "in world" at any given moment).
Second Life, in my admittedly limited experience, often seems like a ghost town. You very rarely see anyone else, at least in the places I've been. It's not that the people have disappeared—they have yet to show up. Most government agencies and many public institutions have felt compelled to set up shop anyway, in case they do, and the Defense Department is no exception.
MyBase is part of a larger Air Force presence in SL known as Huffman Prairie, after the Wright brothers' practice field outside Dayton, Ohio. Here, says my avatar guide—whose name is Scarlett Stand—the Air Force explores "the art of the possible." MyBase is part recruiting tool for tech-savvy young people, part education project (it's ideal for "distance learning"), part game, and part training tool.
Stand, who in First Life is an information technologist at the Air Force's Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, shows me around the place, which she and a handful of virtual world developers built from scratch in just 20 days. Except for the slightly distracting wings, her brief feels a lot like any other guided tour.
There's a visitors center where avatars can read informational posters, link to websites or watch videos about Air Force programs. There's a club with a dance floor where they can mingle. They can test their mettle on an obstacle course and shooting range, or take the virtual P-51 Mustang for a spin. These are popular activities, says Stand, who tells me that since MyBase opened in December, 4,300 visitors have stopped in, averaging about 18 minutes per stay.
At an area called MyBase Zeta, she shows me a simulated Afghan compound, which can be used to stage training exercises. This area is still in Beta testing, but the idea is that a dozen or so people could meet in Second Life to wargame a rescue operation. It wouldn't be hard to change the scenario from Afghanistan to North Korea, Stand tells me. Second Life is flexible that way.
That makes me wonder if this is really about finding cheaper ways to build those elaborate wargames that defense contractors charge the Pentagon millions to develop. I ask an expert in military computer simulations, Michael Zyda, who directs the University of Southern California's GamePipe Laboratory. "People use Second Life if they don't have a lot of money to develop their sim," he answers by email, adding that "the clumsy interface and poor performance of the Second Life client turn most people off."
In other words, serious gamers, and those with access to expensive custom-made simulations, won't likely be impressed by MyBase. But to a newbie like me, it seems pretty cool, even if it is deserted most of the time, and even if I can't say exactly what you're supposed to do after you've read all the posters and mastered the virtual obstacle course.
Second Life is free, but requires that you download and install software to participate (not difficult at all). To reach MyBase, go to this Second Life URL, or SLURL: http://slurl.com/secondlife/MyBase/174/136/28