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Second Life — why and what for?

May 15, 2007

I’m still trying to figure out what all of the buzz is about with Second Life. I’ve created two different profiles and despite being active in related fields (elearning, community, and games) and a frequent speaker no less, I can find little motivation to do anything in this environment (other than, “I know I should do this because it seems like something I should know about” which is pretty lame as far as motivation goes).

The thing is, I’m pretty sure my experience is typical. When I’m in game-based artificial worlds, I have goals, I have motivation, I have reasons to be where I am and to care about the space I am in. In Second Life, I’m having trouble seeing any. Why am I in Second Life and what should I be doing? And why am I not spending this time productively in the real world? When I play God of War II, I feel some guilty pleasure in decapitating Cyclops and Gorgons and I enjoy the experience. When I “play?” Second Life, all I feel is guilty – like I’m just wasting my time completely as I try to invent reasons to be there.

It seems to me that there are some parallels to Second Life in the real world. This isn’t the first time, a new “world” has been discovered / invented. People have compared Second Life to the early stages of the internet and similar issues of “we don’t know what to do with it yet.” But it seems to me, the more apt comparison is to the colonization of the New World or the westward expansion of the US and Canada. In both of these cases, there was a new land and everyone was a new immigrant in that space (except of course the unfortunate native populations).

As we think about Second Life and critical mass and what it will be, I think we need to ask ourselves why people sailed across the oceans of the world to come to the Americas. Or why Americans and Canadians populated the West. What was that model? Simplistically, it was something like this “(perceived opportunity + available enabling technology + perceived reward) minus (perceived threat / risk + anticipated cost) = x. If people thought “x” – the return, was big enough or big enough relative to the same equation applied to their status quo, then maybe they moved their families across an ocean to try for a better a life. Or maybe they followed the gold or land rush West to seek their fortune.

I think the same reasoning applies to Second Life, but the opportunities and rewards seem low by comparison to their real world equivalents. The best analogy is probably a “land grab” similar to the western expansion – I can buy virtual land and develop it and resell it. And assuming enough other people decide to spend time in Second Life, that investment might appreciate. Then again, Linden Labs might decide to just “create” some more land on their servers or make land free. In other words, unlike real property, there is no “there” there. This is a new sort of risk in the “land grab” model. And yet, you still face the old risk of market glut or disinterested buyers. Just like any other real estate market, you face normal market fluctuations around supply and demand. So relative to real land and property, the risks for virtual land and property seem quite high.

Other possible rewards include Services – creating clothing in Second Life for Second Life participants. Or maybe artwork or pets or other Second Life artifacts. What’s unclear is whether there are enough participants to sustain a pure Services economy. So this too, seems insufficient as a motivator.

Beyond Services and Land Grab strategies that lead to economic incentives, what else is there in Second Life? What is there to do? What is there to accomplish? In what way can I entertain or enrich myself by participating? In my real life, I have real friends and do real things – play soccer, go hiking, watch movies, play card games with buddies over beer (or drink beer with buddies while using card games as a pretense), cook on the grill, do yard work, go camping or canoeing. So what’s my non-monetary incentive to give up any of this activity in my actual real life for time spent in a Second Life where there is no real value to anything, except perhaps relationships which can be had just as easily and more satisfyingly in person? Where’s the equivalent of the Gold Rush in Second Life to make me forsake time and experiences with my real friends and my real life for time spent in my Second Life?

What I’m missing?

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