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
In the last week of October, There, Inc., a
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
One project already underway is the creation of a virtual
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
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.” Wowâ€¦ all this talk of communicating, of relationships, and of a chance encounter between There and DARPA on a moon-lit nightâ€¦ what a romantic scenario. Actually, though, it’s surprising that the company wasn’t in bed with the military from the start â€“ 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),
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
“It’s still unclear how the [There] program will be usedâ€¦ It could be used by students at military universities like
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
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing and author of The End of Victory Culture and The Last Days of Publishing.]