CD8+ T cells play a critical role in antiviral immunity by exerting direct antiviral activity against infected cells. Because of their ability to recognize all types of viral proteins, they offer the promise of providing broad immunity to viruses that evade humoral immunity by varying their surface proteins. Consequently, there is considerable interest in developing vaccines that elicit effective antiviral T(CD8+) responses. Generating optimal vaccines ultimately requires rational design based on detailed knowledge of how T(CD8+) are activated in vivo under natural circumstances. Here we review recent progress obtained largely by in vivo studies in mice to understand the mechanistic basis for activation of naive T(CD8+) in virus infections. These studies point the way to detailed understanding and provide some key information for vaccine development, although much remains to be learned to enable truly rational vaccine design.