Second Life

edited March 2007 in Play Advice
I recently read this article by Jenny Diski on the online game Second Life. It raised various half-formed notions in my head about the games we play, so I thought I'd lay it before an audience who might have something to say in response.
Second Life is a virtual online world that exists on a vast computer somewhere in California. It has a detailed landscape, a mainland, many islands and more than one million simulated inhabitants whose actual bodies are distributed around every part of the physical world. It’s called a game though there is no goal and no end point at which a clear winner emerges and takes the prize. In this it is no different from real life (RL, as it’s referred to in SL). And it’s free up to a point, which is the entrance price of real life, though just like the here and now, if you want to own any part of the world in Second Life, you need money to buy it. There are of course differences between RL and SL. You have to opt in to SL, which is a degree of volition you don’t get in reality. This does give it a certain negative charm: at least there is one possible life to which you can just say no. It also has the edge on the real thing (for me, at least, as an über-indolent person), because being a virtual world, you don’t have to go out to get to it. I used to weep envious buckets watching whatshisname in Close Encounters of the Third Kind being taken off-world to the absolutely not here anymore by those delightful doe-eyed creatures, and Second Life seemed to offer a way of doing this without the hassle of the striving, making mountains out of mashed potato, quest thing. So I signed up.

The problem turned out to be (as it must) that Second Life is organised and inhabited by beings from the real world who have by definition very little experience of being anywhere or any way else. Being virtual is not very different from being real because the virtual place and its beings are controlled by the same old us as always.


  • The article is fairly on-the-mark, but misses some major ways that SL is different from RL.

    There are several places where people run roleplaying games in SL. I've looked in on one or two.
  • Fred's right about the fantasy/roleplaying bits. Among other things, the Second Life webpage shows you screenshots of a woman with some kind of science-fiction-y backpack gadget and a vampire with a katana. I think what brings it down is a mixture of two different factors (and probably a few more I can't identify):

    1. The majority of folks who play MMOGs are more often interested in avatarism rather than what pen-and-paper roleplayers consider "roleplaying." From an avatarist perspective, standing around as a somewhat idealized version of you can be pretty amusing. That's my personal experience with avatarism, at least.

    2. When there isn't a coherent structure and everyone's just creating stuff, and "everyone" means lots and lots of people, everyone's creations just kinda water everything down. In this respect, playing Second Life is a bit like bringing a hundred strangers together and saying "Okay, this is a LARP. And... go!" -- what you'll get out is a big mix of stuff that will kinda end up resembling real life with some weird fantastical stuff crammed in around the edges.

    I rather like this (comical) review, which generally seems to agree with Diski's observations (especially about appearance):
    Toothpaste for Dinner blog: "My Adventures in Second Life"
  • Kind of off topic, but...

    By strange chance I had a conversation about Second Life just yesterday with my mother. My mom is a teacher at a local high school and told me that the school board recently decided that Second Life was a bad thing, and that they should activly discourage students from playing it, to the point of trying to stop them from playing it at home on their own time. The school board believes that the apathy, disinterest and general lack of enthusiasm for school on the part of their students and be entirely attributed to video games, and most especially to Second Life. As a part time teacher myself I find this absurd. Lack of enthusiasm and interest comes from one fact: school sucks. make school interesting and worthwhile and you can easily maintain students interest. Most teachers get this, but why this seems to be a mystery to every school board in America is beyond me.

    I found this stunning. Not so much that the school board of this district believes that a game like Second Life is an actual threat, but that someone so close to me could buy in to such a narrow and reactionary view. It also seems absurd that the school would target a somewhat obscure game that (I believe) is only available to people 18 and older anyway. There seem to be much more logical targets for this kind of witch hunt tactic.

    Of course, this doesn't have much to do with the OP topic, but I thought it was worth mentioning.

  • Jake, that's headbuttingly stupid, you're right.

    My experience with Second Life is that it actually makes my computer sweat and breathe hard like an overweight boy forced to run around the track by a cruel gym teacher. I understand the client's source been opened, so maybe things will improve.

    Aside from that, it's a fun place to create stuff, but the roleplaying aspects seem... hollow, I guess. Alex hits it on the head: it really, at its core, assumes avatarism. Resolution is, by nature, by consensus only (though I understand you can write combat rules and the like for games), but I have a hard time seeing how you could do much more than wander around as a guy in a place without any metagame mechanics to get you into the thick of conflict.

    I'm eager to see how it develops. Next new computer I get, I'll be trying it out again.

  • I have to confess knowing next to nothing about the game. I went to great lengths to argue on the games behalf on my assumption that the game actually isn't harmful in any way. My understanding from what I read is it's a virtual community where you can create stuff, and if you want to spend money, buy stuff. That seems all well and good. I can certainly see how you might use that to play games, but for it to compete with playing games in my home with friends the user interface would have to improve a lot. Or I imagine it would. I imagine the inbterface, and what you are able to do and express in game, is comparable to other online games.
  • edited March 2007
    I admit I have not used SL personally or delved into SL's programming support, but I wonder if it always players to slap (programmatic) rules to stuff, so you could extend a vanilla avatar into a character with stats that reactive dynamically to "combat"/whatever..

    I just read about "Whirled", a new 2.5D Flash-based game that features player-created content like SL and company-built mini-games.<?a>
  • edited March 2007
    There are "islands" (independent servers) in Second Life where the players have got software (scripts,actually) that cause their avatars to react to combat, etc. in ways that you would recognize from games like WOW. So yes, Chris, you can have stats that react dynamically to events in the game.

    What SL is, REALLY, is a gigantic chatroom with really impressive visual and auditory support.

    I go to church there.

    If people want to know about my experiences "playing" SL in this way, I'll be happy to relate, but I don't know if it's germaine to this discussion.
  • I go to church there.

    Is this really true? If so, this is the most interesting thing I've heard about the game yet.
  • This is really true.

    I have attended six or seven services. My wife is disabled, which makes getting out the door for sunday services quite difficult.
  • That's really neat. I'm not a church person in any way, but I find the idea of attending services in this way very interesting. Thanks for the link. I'll check it out when I get a chance.

  • Well... we're Unitarians. We aren't "church people" either! :) It's about the most un-churchy church you're likely to encounter.
  • Of course. I guess I just meant that even as a non religious person I find the idea of church services in an omnline enviroment to be very interesting.

  • I'm not a religious person, but the FUUSL looks like a cool outlet for personal and social expression. In SL, creative people could even create (their own visions of) Heaven and hold services here.

    Vaxalon: the FUUSL web site might want to host their video themselves. Here's a screenshot of the church-inappropriate ads that the MetaCafe video player shows after the FUUSL video is finished. image
  • They don't have the cash to host the video themselves... hosting video eats a lot of bandwidth... and metacafe is better than some of the alternatives.

    And as for what's appropriate... well... come to a service. Sometimes the guy who organizes the whole thing comes dressed as the solar system... complete with asteroid belt.

    Unitarians tend to be a rather... erm... diverse bunch... and on SL they're even moreso.

    It's not unusual to see a robot, a hobbit, and two or three furries in the congregation. So far we haven't had any nudity but it's probably only a matter of time.
  • I've never played Second Life, but I recently came across a reference to something called "The Osiris Sanction", which seems to be a LARP in which 1/3 of the events are held within Second Life. (The other 2/3 are out in the real world, like regular LARPs).

    I think this points the way toward thinking of Second Life not as a game, but as a tool that you could use to run games of various sorts.
  • Definitely true, Dave. Very definitely true.
  • I wouldn't describe SL as a game. There are games in Second Life, but there's also meditation retreats, furry porn, churches, social clubs, giant robots and a lot of cool houses.

    It's never quite lived up to its promise, but that may only be a matter of time.
  • It's "not a game" the same way, oh, Capes is "not a game"

    It's what you make of it.
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