They may not have come across this crucial application of virtual worlds if it hadn't been for USC's free high-speed broadband. When lifelong gamer Fouts came to USC in 1997 to run the Annenberg School for Communication's Online Journalism program, he and Thomas began "exploiting the fact that USC had this great internet connection" and started playing multiplayer computer games over the school's local area network. In 2003, they began playing their first MMOG: Star Wars Galaxies. They noticed it had a huge international fan base, even though it was an American game. "So one day just for the hell of it we went to the EU servers just to see what they were doing in Europe, and we started asking people, 'What do you think of Americans?'" says Thomas. "And they started saying, 'Well, they're really not so bad once you play with them.' So light bulbs went over our heads where we were like, 'Wow, so there's a public diplomacy project here.'"
"At that point we had just launched the Center on Public Diplomacy, which is all about researching how governments, civil societies and [non-governmental organizations] can work to facilitate dialogue and understanding between cultures," Fouts says. "So I started playing the game and noticed that not only were people from other cultures hanging out in this space and playing in this space together, but that what they had to do was inherently collaborative, so these really close relationships formed among people." Fouts noticed that Star Wars Galaxies gamers not only worked together to complete quests, but also established highly bureaucratic, multicultural cities. "All of these elements together illustrated that something really different was going on in these spaces. People were not just playing games. People were emotionally, intellectually and psychologically invested in these spaces in a really rich way."
The Star Wars Galaxies experience inspired Fouts and Thomas to begin studying cultural exchange and civic engagement in virtual worlds. The first project for their Public Diplomacy in Virtual Worlds Initiative was the "Reinventing Public Diplomacy Through Games Competition," which challenged game designers to "design a prototype or modify a game incorporating the fundamental characteristics of public diplomacy." Entries arrived from all over the world, and the majority of them were built in Second Life. The platform's popularity persuaded them to buy an island, where they hosted the awards ceremony for the competition.
Thomas says that although virtual worlds can effectively transfer facts to a player's brain, they specifically excel at teaching subjects like ethics that are only learned experientially. One example of this learning experience is "Virtual Gitmo," USC and Seton Hall University's joint Second Life project that simulates what it's like to be hooded, helpless and imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. "Think about the comparison of that and somebody lecturing you about what it's like to be in Guantanamo. It's a very different set of lessons to be learned, so those are the killer applications for virtual worlds, this experiential stuff that you can't get anyplace else."