The virtual world Second Life ("SL") has been in the news recently, announcing some high-profile executive changes, and a new policy to help users filter out mature content.
I think the thing might be dead already, only nobody knows it yet.
For those of you who’ve managed to avoid the hype over the past few years, SL is a virtual world — a landscape, replete with mountains, oceans, and lots of places on which people can build things like houses, temples, and stores — in which members can appear and interact as cartoon characters, called "avatars." The business was conceived primarily as a real estate company, which provided the land on which people could do things (and which could be created endlessly for little incremental cost to the company, Linden Labs).
The model is a miracle because it all but invented the idea of purely digital assets having value. The primary activities in the SL world are 1) avatars flirting with one another, and 2) the sale of digital buildings, hairdos, clothes and, er, special body parts, all intended to help improve the experience (see activity 1). Concurrently, some companies have bought land on SL and done everything from setting up virtual showrooms and sampling opportunities, to designing meeting rooms and asking employees (or job applicants) to use SL for meetings. They’ve even sold virtual merchandise, like logo T-shirts or gym shoes for avatars to wear.
Linden says that user-to-user monetary transactions could reach $450 million this year. Remember, these are all virtual bits of electrons on computer screens, nothing more. I should be such a failure. It’s amazing stuff.
Got it. So now what?
There are few things that you can accomplish via SL that you can’t do via any number of other technologies, from IM and Facebook, to VoIP conferencing, mobile texting, or playing World of Warcraft or EVE Online. The idea that SL lets you do them through your animated and often life-like avatar is totally cool, as is the creation and transfer of those digital assets.
And it turns out that technology platforms need to have relevance and utility for the real world, just as all of those other interactive technologies offer. I can us IM for work, or VoIP to stay in touch with my relatives in Sweden. Buying virtual products within SL does little for my business in the real world, if anything. SL’s benefits, like an online MMORPG, are inclusive of experience, and exclusive of any external application.
SL remains a technology platform more than a community, or a place. And it’s certainly not a game. But it could be.
The fundamental drivers of game experience are the same as those that give real life its meaning (or at least resonance to moments within it): sense of direction, responsibility, risk-and-reward, second chances and, overall, purpose. Experiences don’t have to be recognized as games consciously to be fulfilling, as any coupon-clipper, sale shopper, or parent striving to outwit her kids will tell you.
Gaming is a strategic model before it’s the label for a product or service. And, in the instance of SL (and even if users can invent games within it), it’s ultimately a destination without structure, content, or purpose.
Imagine a different approach, such as the avatars of SL organized into actual countries…with citizenship responsibilities, work requirements, and all the other opportunities and detritus of experience that constitute, well, living. Citizenship would mean that people had actual roles in their communities, and had things they actually had to do other than show up, float around, and buy new jewelry. Forget being a bland, pointless simulacra of real life; it would be it’s own life, with consequences, continuity, and all that other stuff that differentiates stuff that matters from stuff that doesn’t.
A fundamental premise of these countries would have to be some limit on resources, so there were constraints — rules — in which the communities operated. So you could just see the fights between businesses, or the political campaigns and efforts. SL would become something that people actually lived.
And without a plan for how people will truly live there in the future, I wonder whether the idea isn’t already dead?