Consider computer games as training, say congressional researchers

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Report raises the possibility of using virtual worlds as battlefields.

With the military and other agencies training and recruiting via computer games and virtual spaces, congressional researchers urged legislators to get involved.

Comment on this article in The Forum.On April 9, the Congressional Research Service released "Avatars, Virtual Reality Technology and the U.S. Military: Emerging Policy Issues," a brief review of how 3-D online simulated training venues are emerging as complements and even replacements for the large, immobile simulators the armed services traditionally use. The report also pointed out that the virtual reality tools allow many users to train together relatively cheaply, in some cases with only laptop computers connected to the Internet, thus providing access to agencies that could not afford to use simulators.

Virtual reality training lets users repeat missions, practice emergency scenarios without risk of injury, and simulate the use of expensive, heavy equipment without fuel or maintenance costs. CRS suggested that virtual worlds could be used as battlefields and touched on the Defense Department's plan to model the world in real time via its Sentient Worldwide Simulation.

The report raised several issues for lawmakers to consider as they assess virtual reality simulation. For example, the U.S. communications infrastructure is old and limited in comparison to that of Asian countries, whose advanced equipment and networks could allow them to set the global standard for virtual world technology. China, for example, is developing -- with the help of U.S. firms such as IBM and Intel -- a world called HiPiHi that reportedly will accommodate 75 million users simultaneously. Should global banking, transportation control and commerce come to be conducted extensively in virtual worlds, domination of standards or servers by China could present a threat to the United States.

CRS also raised the question of whether the military should plan to conduct warfare in virtual reality. The report recommended that legislators closely consider the cost effectiveness of virtual military training.

In considering such costs, Congress could look at NASA's recent call for companies interested in building an online game -- for free. On April 21, NASA released the request for proposal for an online game to make science and technology learning fun and thereby fill the candidate pool for future NASA jobs.

The space agency is looking for a massive multiplayer game such as World of Warcraft or Everquest -- persistent, immersive spaces where player goals, achievement systems and rules are built in. The agency hopes that by combining its content and real missions with fun, challenging play, its game will strengthen its future workforce by attracting students to science and technology majors. The target audience for the game is students from 13 years old to college age.

Instead of paying the winning contractor, NASA intends to "consider negotiating brand placement, limited exclusivity and other opportunities," according to the RFP. It will be worth watching how NASA's proposal is received in the world of game development, where projects rarely proceed without a guaranteed 500 percent return. An April 21 workshop for potential partners drew 200 companies, indicating that the NASA brand is worth a lot.