Virtual Tourists Show Little Interest in U.S. Government Sims


        The DoE's island is impressive, but empty.

Until recently, the Department of Energy''s involvement in Second Life has been limited to
hosting a speaker through the University of Delaware's Second Life
lecture series,"Global Agenda." This attracted a few dozen avatars, some of whom even stayed through the entire speech.

Fascination with virtual worlds, especially Second Life, has led several government agencies to construct outreach and public education centers in the Metaverse.

Now, after several years of concerted development, these virtual temples to the Department of Energy and the NOAA sit mostly unused, victims of what one tourist calls "the big empty."

Lonely Temples

DoE's plans for the island are hazy at the moment, and much of it is still unfinished. In fact, nothing has changed from my visit a month ago, including its traffic ranking. When the Department of Energy signed Metaverse consultant Eric Hackathorn, the mastermind behind NOAA's brilliant transition to digital space, I wonder if they understood what they were paying for.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's island is beautiful and boasts a functional tsunami simulator, but it's a thrill you're likely to enjoy alone. In my four visits to NOAA island over two weeks, I never encountered another active player.

I am a techno-optimist, but I am left to wonder what the cost-benefit ratio of constructing these sprawling islands is for cash-strapped government agencies. Sure, it's possible to construct an island for a few thousand dollars, but is this the case when multiple design consultants are signed? What does it say that the digital project is still unfinished months after my first visit?

Second Life is a game where players express themselves through purchasing items, and they won't continue to come back to an island like the one built by DoE unless there are fun things to buy. Take a look at the sprawling, empty shacks of major corporations in the virtual world. Perhaps DoE should have researched before leaping into the Metaverse.

It seems like the continual expense of the island isn't justified by the total lack of traffic.

I contacted the Department of Energy for some information on how this massive online undertaking is progressing, but the Media Department seemed to have no idea what I was talking about. Follow-up calls and e-mails were referred to the Hell of bureaucracy.

Virtual Worlds as Learning Tools

There's no doubt that specialized virtual worlds can be used as effective learning tools, as innovative companies like ClaseMovil have shown with their virtual classroom system. So why is it that few, if any people have visited the Department of Energy's new island, or the virtual naval base (complete with nuclear submarines) developed by the Navy?

Could it be that these islands just aren't interesting? No, there's plenty to do on each of the islands, from participating in simulations to turning the cavernous space into a push-gun tournament. The problem rests in the kind of people who use Second Life, and why they play.

Keep in mind the majority of activity in Second Life is due to a small group of "power players" while the vast bulk of active accounts stand idle at places like the Philosophy House. This isn't conducive to the kind of large-scale virtual persuasion government agencies are looking for.

Would the Department of Energy have signed on for this virtual world project if it had known the potential audience for such grandeur was only a few hundred curious onlookers a week, and that perhaps 1% of those would actually be moved to visit the DoE's website?

The idea is noble, but as a venue, Second Life is all wrong.

3 thoughts on “Virtual Tourists Show Little Interest in U.S. Government Sims”

  1. It doesn’t help that kids aren’t allowed to visit these areas — they would be perfect places to take kids to on a rainy day.
    For example, my ex-husband is based in Shanghai, and the kids are here in Massachusetts. They occasinally meet in a virtual world to do stuff together. Because of the SL age restrictions, they wind up meeting on OpenSim grids — which, unfortunately, doesn’t have anywhere near the kinds of attraction that SL does.
    I’m not saying that kids don’t sneak in anyway — but if they do, I’m sure they don’t head straight for the museums but to the other kind of “attactions.”
    — Maria Korolov
    Editor, Hypergrid Business

  2. “Second Life is a game where players express themselves through purchasing items…”
    That’s just so wrong, on so many levels. Unfortunately, it may be indicative of Linden Lab’s change in marketing direction, but for the time being it is an incorrect assessment, the kind which sadly is typical of a person who logs in only long enough to verify his own pre-conceptions. Calling Second Life a “game” is not simply bad manners, it indicates a profound ignorance of the difference between a virtual world and an MMO.
    More germane to this post’s subject, here are your own words of 12/8/09, “Politics in the Virtual World”:
    “Most Second Life avatars aren’t American. Out of 600,000 active accounts, which isn’t a huge amount of potential voters, the rules of direct contact say about 3-4% of these will be moved by what you’re selling. That’s 18,000 eyes, and at least half are not American.
    All that effort for under 9,000 potential votes in a national-level campaign? Get real.”
    Most important of all: Second Life persists because it is categorically NOT real life, despite the attempts at intrusion by corporations with products to sell — or governmental institutions with their own agendas to promote, no matter how educationally well-intentioned. No one who understands that should be surprised at the lack of traffic… but understanding that requires immersion in the world, not “research” confined to press-releases and metrics.
    “Could it be that these islands just aren’t interesting?” Absolutely — but not because there isn’t “plenty to do”. Those islands are as irrelevant as marketing soft drinks is to avatars who don’t get thirsty.
    — Lalo Telling

  3. Why would I, as a US citizen, want to support the US goverment in Second Life?
    Second Life is one of the few places I feel I can escape the tyranny of US Government.
    Why would I want to support them by going to their inworld locations?
    Furthermore, it’s upsetting that US tax dollars are spent on crap like this.

Comments are closed.