U.S. Intel Agency Wants to Build World of (Actual) Warcraft

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the U.S. Defense Department intel office responsibly for imagery and mapping, is considering a novel way to improve the performance of its analysts: having them interact in a virtual "Zen-like scene with avatars" along the lines of Second Life or World of Warcraft. The large but little-covered agency posted an ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images
STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the U.S. Defense Department intel office responsibly for imagery and mapping, is considering a novel way to improve the performance of its analysts: having them interact in a virtual "Zen-like scene with avatars" along the lines of Second Life or World of Warcraft.

The large but little-covered agency posted an industry request for information in April, soliciting proposals for the development of a "Geospatial Metaverse":  "an immersive virtual environment for the creation and management of integrated intelligence regardless of physical location. It is an integrated and collaborative web-based environment blending virtual worlds with geospatial data, available intelligence, multi-player game dynamics and User Experience Development (UXD) to create and deliver peer reviewed multi-sourced intelligence and organizational efficiencies." 

As my colleague Noah Shachtman has reported, this is something of longstanding interest for the intelligence community. The NGA is specfically interested in constructing a program that "has a 3D graphical interface and integrated audio, text, and voice," "supports massively multi-user remote interactivity," and "emphasizes user-generated activities and goals." They also describe what the environment would look like for a number of hypothetical employees, including a supervisor named Samantha.

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the U.S. Defense Department intel office responsibly for imagery and mapping, is considering a novel way to improve the performance of its analysts: having them interact in a virtual "Zen-like scene with avatars" along the lines of Second Life or World of Warcraft.

The large but little-covered agency posted an industry request for information in April, soliciting proposals for the development of a "Geospatial Metaverse":  "an immersive virtual environment for the creation and management of integrated intelligence regardless of physical location. It is an integrated and collaborative web-based environment blending virtual worlds with geospatial data, available intelligence, multi-player game dynamics and User Experience Development (UXD) to create and deliver peer reviewed multi-sourced intelligence and organizational efficiencies." 

As my colleague Noah Shachtman has reported, this is something of longstanding interest for the intelligence community. The NGA is specfically interested in constructing a program that "has a 3D graphical interface and integrated audio, text, and voice," "supports massively multi-user remote interactivity," and "emphasizes user-generated activities and goals." They also describe what the environment would look like for a number of hypothetical employees, including a supervisor named Samantha.

"Samantha enters her virtual office, a Zen-like scene with avatars, task reminders and external
communication options barely noticeable," the proposal read. "Samantha appreciates the efficiency and interactivity of the Geospatial Metaverse and she can vary the level of prompting based on her plan for the day. Her avatar, a small blue circle named Ed in order to allow audible commands, has  assembled the overnight activities and slowly changes to pale green to alert Samantha to information about employees in different time zones."

Other employees interact with virtual assistants with names like "Pixie" and "Que". Naturally, there’s a gamification component for the junior-level employees like young go-getter Steve: "By deciding to add a 10 year career goal the planner generates additional badges and trophies Steve can work to achieve, exposing him to the goal’s requirements."

Why would the NGA want its analysts working for virtual trophies rather than just being satisfied with contributing toward larger achievements like, say, killing Osama bin Laden? The proposal references the work of the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, whose bestselling book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience argues that people are happiest and most productive when fully immersed in working toward tangible achievable goals that are suited to their own talents and qualifications. The agency hopes that the experience of working in the metaverse will allow"users of different skills and ability to reach a flow state."

Of course, it’s also noteworthy that after years of criticism that technologies like sattelite imagery, drones, and Call of Duty-esque training programs are making the experience of war too much like a video game, a Defense Department agency is interested in literally turning military intelligence into a video game. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

Tag: War

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