Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Does Second Life Have Feeling? M Linden’s Stories

M Linden has been building up a story for Second Life and whether it’s a well planned strategy or whether he’s thinking this all up as he goes along, at least he’s trying to keep us abreast of his thought process, whether we agree with the details or not (which isn’t to deny that we need to get the details right, just to say that I have other things on my mind today).

So the story so far is a bit of a 3-step dance between M and Mitch and Philip who probably get together for lunch every now and then, but not the kind of lunch I have where you rush through it or bring it back to the office and wipe the mustard off your status reports, but the kind of lunch where you say to the waitress “take your time with the food, we’re going to be here a while” and ideally the place you’re eating is close to the beach or something so you can carry on the chat and doodle on the sand and maybe take a second at the end of it all to go “wow, that’s so Zen, the sea will wash our doodles away just like we’ll all be washed away eventually, though thank god for the Singularity, peace out see you Monday.”

The P/K/M Three-Step
In any case the three step goes something like this:

“I’m a visionary who sees stars in the code and it’s time for me to string out infinities by focusing on applications and other visiony stuff, so let me introduce M Linden,” says Philip.

“I love the residents, I love this world, cool stuff is happening here because there’s so much passion, and for now I’ll swim in that for a while and start pushing buttons on the Love Machine, but don’t worry, I know what the Grid needs.,” says M.

“This is all so exciting,” says Mitch, “The metaverse is growing up and people are learning and universities are coming and we’ll soon all be dipping and ducking in front of our 3D cameras, but look, if you’re one of those frontier types, just a warning, we’re welcoming a new era in and that changes things, but we really need collaboration and education and the future is dawning again, just without all you hippy types with too much time on your hands.”

And we close it all off, for now, with M reminding us that he really, really does know that Grid stability is important, and SL is really, really doing better than we think, and there’s some really really cool stuff going on, like government agencies trying to teach us about diseases, and Cigna teaching us that we should live healthier lives, and the British Computing Society teaching us how to be better teachers, and students learning stuff.

OK, so look – I like it so far, nothing wrong with it, but I posted previously:

“For all the buzzy joy of Philip and improving humanity, I’d like to hear a vision. I’d like to hear the “why”. I’d like to know why Second Life matters not in some fuzzy way like “collaboration and saving the ozone layer” or “education is cool””

What Do We Do At Night?
You know, I think the idea of life-long learning is great. I think the idea of collapsing geography so I can meet up with, um, folks in Korea or the UK or whatever – fantastic. I mean, I can also pick up the phone and call, I guess, but sure, there’s something nice about meeting in a room, seeing a representation of someone, rezzing a prim to explain a point, using voice chat to save on long distance, or ideally bringing up a Word doc like I can do in Qwak.

See, I stagnate and get frustrated when I’m not learning something new. It makes the day interesting. It helps me deal with my short attention span, because otherwise I’m nodding off in business meetings, or I’m secretly reading blogs at the office, or I’m thinking about taking a super long vacation or something. I’m blessed – I have work I love, I have days that are filled up mainly because there’s always something new to learn.

But the thing is, learning new stuff and roaming around the Cigna sim might make my day more interesting, but it rarely keeps me up past midnight. And that’s the thing: for all of the progress that Second Life is making in attracting 14 of 15 universities to the Grid, it’s all stuff for the day.

And I’m not going to guess what Philip and M and Mitch do at night – for all I know they’re on constant learning alert, and head home and watch PBS or read Kevin Kelly or hold little learning labs with their kids or whatever – no idea.

For some people, though, myself included, I can barely function during the day let alone at night with all this high octane learning and imagine if I were a teacher to boot – learning AND drafting lesson plans and picking up on new technologies and good lord, where’s the fun?

At night, for me anyways, I like to veg usually. Well, actually, what I REALLY like to do is veg with someone I love. And sure, it’s great to go take classes with your partner or whatever, but my point is that I don’t have the mental stamina to be in class every waking hour.

Maybe it’s my age because it shows a kind of bias for different media, but I grew up vegetating through two things: people and stories. And more often than not, the two were combined. Hanging out with friends and telling stories – OK, gossip maybe, or repeating other stories, like “did you see that episode where” or maybe even stories about ourselves, like “when I grow up I want to be a…” Or you sit and watch TV or go to a movie or watch a ballgame and you’re watching a story unfold and maybe you’re talking about it later with someone or maybe it goes in one ear and out the other.

And all these stories and all of this stuff where you’re with people, sometimes it leads to other stuff like love and sex and tragedy and family and raising kids. And you live for all that other stuff really, right? It’s about the emotional power of it all, with stories in between to keep us sane and to help us understand what it all means, and yeah, of course, you also spend time paying the bills, and doing the dishes, and taking the dog for a walk, but for me the bottom line is that it’s great to learn, and there can be drama and emotion during the day, but my question for the three wise men of the Lab is: that’s all fine, but what do we do at NIGHT?

So what strikes me is that for all the focus on the schools and collaboration and the health of the in-world economy, M Linden is forgetting that the passion he spotted in that first week at the Lab before he got distracted by the buttons on the Love Machine, was a combination of all those cool potentially killer apps and the power of Second Life to let people, well….to let people FEEL, and to chill out, and to a whole lot of NOTHING if that’s what they decide.

Lessons from Age of Conan for Second Life
I’ve called Second Life a Story Box. And by calling it that, I don’t just mean that it’s an immersive playground for being someone new, or falling in love, or whatever – because the power of stories IS the killer app, it’s just that the teachers and collaborators and brands haven’t quite figured out how to do that in SL yet.

In Connecting the Dots, Robert Bloomfield pointed out:

As Christian Renaud has said to me several times, why make virtual collaboration just as effective as face-to-face when we can make it so much better? What is the best way to conduct a virtual meeting? How can we use 3D visualization tools to communicate information in ways that flat screens can’t? How do we teach a class, or reach out to customers, better than with a classroom or a web survey?

I’d propose that there are lots of ways to do this, by drawing on the art of the impossible, for example, and also the art of narrative and storytelling.

But more than these things is the recognition that in addition to code the world is a world because, as Prok says, there’s drama – feelings, emotions, all of those things that are often more heightened at night than in the day.

Over on Gamasutra, an interview with David Cage points us in the direction of reconciling the two ’schools’ of game design: the sandbox and the rollercoaster, and in so doing, reminds me that Second Life has been positioned as the ultimate sandbox, perhaps at the expense of attracting the wider audience that wants to just hang out at night and not have to think too much.

Cage points out that the sandbox concept, when applied to the wider goal of engaging your ‘typical’ user, can succeed but can leave a lot to be desired:

(A sandbox says) “Look, there are tools. There are things. Maybe there will be friends. Maybe not. Do what you want.” There’s one possibility that these sandbox experiences are so fantastic because you’ve been extremely lucky. You know how to use the tool. You met people that were truly great, and you had something incredible to do.

But you know what? It’s also possible that it happens that you get bored and don’t cope with the people in the sandbox. You don’t like the tools, or you don’t know what to do with them, and you end up with a very poor experience.

I mean – if that doesn’t sound like the crap shoot of entering Second Life, then I don’t know what does. You enter and the tools, which you’re introduced to in the horrible mess of orientation island, either make sense or they don’t. But more importantly, you either meet the right kinds of people who make your experience compelling, or you don’t.

Cage proposes that the solution is to seek out emotional value:

“So in my mind, some of the very few kind of real sandboxes I know are with massively multiplayer games. When I say “kind of,” I don’t believe there are absolutely real sandboxes out there. It’s only a list of scripted things, but there are so many of them and you can play them in any order, you get the feeling that you’re in a sandbox. In fact, it’s really rare that you’re really in a sandbox. Most of the time, you’re in a scripted experience but it’s really heated.

I’ve played many MMOs these days, and most of the time, the experience is really poor, because you end up doing not very exciting things. I think the value of the experience is not on that. It’s really about building yourself – the vision of yourself, like, “Oh, I want to be a hero, because I’ve spent so much time at level 16. I’m so strong. Look at my weapons and my helmet.” These are the core mechanics these games are based on.

I think that’s fine for people when they need to build self esteem, and it’s a very important core complementing experience, but if you’re not into that, what’s the real narrative or emotional value? The value is not always there.”

Stories and Emotional Experiences

All of which leaves me with the notion that while the Lab focuses on the tools and the orientation experience and, perhaps, helping people to connect with each other (through search, or orientation groups or whatever) they could also leave some room in their business model for the emotional experience of the world.

And I have some thoughts on what that looks like, but primarily it would include social functions, and some better tools for scripting at a meta-level, but also, based on what’s there today, includes land, and the economy, and most important of all the way in which these things support content creators.

Because right now, it’s the folks who build all that stuff cramming the asset servers who are the storytellers, and they’re the folks who help facilitate emotional transactions or, to put it less geekily – they give us stuff to do at night.

If you cut the land out from under them, or you aren’t vigorous in the protection of IP, then you’re hanging the storytellers out to dry, and all you’ll be left with are a bunch of tools, a smattering of night classes, and a bunch of lonely looking teachers drafting lesson plans.


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