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."
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.