Second Life

Killing Sacred Cows I: The Second Life Interface

I’ve been reading a lot lately. Too much and my head’s maybe not in the right space, but somehow it’s got me thinking about preconceived ideas and received wisdom and orthodoxy. And I risk being overly provocative, but I started off with Coming of Age in Second Life by Tom Boellstorff (Bukowski in Second Life) who takes an anthropologist’s view of the Grid and found myself in awe (and found myself needing to write a post of its own on the book but suffice to say – BUY IT) and mixing that up with some books on game theory and….well, here’s the thing, I ended up wondering if some of the things I take for granted are errors of conception.

Call them the Sacred Cows of Second Life. And maybe it’s time for me to kill one or two of them. For myself in any case.

And the first is that the Second Life interface sucks. Which will lead to the next sacred cow, which is that the newbie orientation experience sucks. And the sacred cow isn’t necessarily that these things aren’t true, but that we should actually do something about it.

So before I get blasted with statistics about attrition rates in the first hour and why 90% of users don’t come back, and how even experienced users need to dig deeper to understand how to use the client, the world, how to twist a prim, I’ll acknowledge that I can be a real idiot with technology. And I’ll acknowledge the following:

- I still don’t understand how to set perms. The debug permissions settings are a mystery to me. I have no idea what the “V” stands for.
- Deeding land and deeding objects to groups baffles me. I don’t understand how to nest permissions at the land level, I don’t understand the notions of control and ownership and how to properly let people do what they need to do without making a muddle of who owns what and who can edit it, and who can move it or deed it.
- It took me 4 weeks to learn how to fly above a few hundred meters. It took me 6 weeks to learn that you could disable camera constraints.
- I have no idea how to use the camera settings, how to zoom, how to get my avatar to stand still if I’m trying to take a photo of myself.
- I can’t for the life of me remember how to reset things like “enable/disable typing animation” when I download a new viewer, and have no clue why the settings need to be, well, reset every time.
- Planar vs. default texturing is a mystery.
- Groups are a mystery – am I in the wrong groups? Does anyone use groups anymore to talk to each other? Do I need new friends?
- I recently discovered the lag meter. And yeah, Linden has posted 100 times on how to reduce lag, but it’s beyond me, and besides I don’t care, I have a monster machine and a fast connection and lag is just something that IS, I live with it, but I feel the pain of those on lesser machines.

All of which is to say that the interface is NOT user friendly, at least for someone like myself who’s unfamiliar with half the terms and look, it took me an hour to learn how to talk when I first got to SL, and it must be even harder now – do I click that little chat balloon or the other button and what’s the difference between “Communicate” and “Talk” or whatever the buttons say, all you really want to do is ask someone where the fun is.

And Dazzle – well, dazzle is all skin and no bones. It looks nice but it doesn’t change very much. Just like search didn’t change anything, just made things more complicated, and the world has gotten so large that you need a thesaurus to try to figure out what words to use when you’re looking to narrow down the choices.

But here’s the question – so what?

One received orthodoxy is to dumb down the interface, make it easier to use, nest the tools and buttons and menu items so that the new user is faced with only a few easy choices. The conventional wisdom is that someone gets to SL and they’re so confounded with choice that they leave instead of face the grueling tasks of figuring out how to fly, drive, walk, teleport, build, chat, IM, join groups, search the grid.

But a few things occur to me. And one is that this orthodoxy presumes a few things: a) that it’s better to start dumb and get smarter, b) that if you could figure out how to do the simple stuff with your viewer that you’d be on the fast track to many long happy hours on the grid and that c) Linden needs to get to work simplifying things.

But I wonder. I mean, first – hasn’t this been tried before? If the viewer is such a clunky soggy mess of buttons, then what about the OnRez viewer? The whole point of it was to simplify the newbie experience. In fact, the whole CSI build was based on that premise – and gosh, Giff must think I have it in for them, and I don’t, but they were talking about CSI as an “ongoing series with characters and new adventures” and now they’re shutting it down because “it was always the plan”. The OnRez viewer was not always planned to become obsolete in 6 months, in my opinion.

But my point is that we’ve tried dumbed-down. And then I think about my own experience – and frankly, I had no clue. I’m not a big video game person. I mean, sure, PC games maybe, but X-Box is a mystery to me, and it only has 6 or 8 or whatever buttons, and I can never combine them the right way regardless of the game, my character always jumps when he’s supposed to crouch.

So the SL viewer seemed insanely difficult to me – so many buttons, so much to learn, and this on TOP of learning where to go, how to talk, who to talk to, and what the culture was all about, the norms, the attitudes, the list of things to see or places to go.

But if it was so difficult, and the viewer is open source – then surely someone, somewhere, would have created an interface so amazingly simple that we’d all be sending newbies off to download a copy?

But maybe the orthodoxy is wrong. Maybe we all secretly thrill to the fact that we conquered it? Maybe we all feel a sense of pride that we’ve mastered some arcane menu feature, that we’ve actually experienced those little moments of “flow” when our abilities came up against a challenge that was just slightly more than our capacities and we conquered it? And maybe it’s the challenge of it, and maybe it’s the buffet we’re given, both as newbies and as experienced pros – that there’s always another button right around the corner, or there’s always the debugging menu to learn, or some new little piece of LSL, or learning how to hack the viewer so we can create mega prims (I can’t remember a time when everyone got so charged up about adding ANOTHER button to the viewer as the mega prim creation buttons).

We’ve got some time to invest. Priorities to set. M talked about optimizing the experience and trying to grab those newcomers to the grid by their lapels and getting them, somehow, to STAY. And sure, it’s probably elitist to say this, but maybe if you can’t figure out the interface you’re really not going to get the best of grid, and you’re not going to want to stay in any case. But I don’t think it’s elitist….kids who master some new move combination on Playstation are hardly elitist, they’re just on the road to mastery, drilling down through an interface trying to learn its arcane commands so they can get just a little bit better, kill a little bit faster. And I’ve been checking out some games and platforms lately and honestly, after you master the 2-3 buttons you’re given, well, there’s nothing left to LEARN, and sure there’s social stuff, but have a look at someone’s Facebook profile – it’s a mad cluttered mess of widgets and buttons, and little things to master and games to play – maybe we LIKE complexity, maybe it’s the nature of the new cyber reality.

So maybe we should question some of the received orthodoxies – and maybe the viewer is better than we think it is. Dumbed down didn’t work. A dumbed down viewer, a dumbed down orientation experience, and a dumbed down OnRez marketplace and here we are – generally using the viewer we were born with, loading stuff up to and shopping at SLE, and using the whole Grid for orientation as soon as we can get ourselves off Help Island – because the bar’s set early.

Conquer this, the experience says, and untold riches await. Don’t, and maybe you weren’t cut out for this game in the first place. You can always go back to the X-Box, it only has a dozen or so buttons afterall.


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