Home: No Place Like SL?

AN ESSAY BY EXTROPIA DaSILVA.

Extropia’s back with more delightful reading — Gwyn

It is a fair bet that any company releasing a 3D social space to be inhabited by customisable avatars, who shop for virtual furniture with which to furnish their similarly virtual houses is going to find itself compared to Second Life. And that is what has happened to Sony’s new online service for the PlayStation3, which it calls ‘Home’. Not everybody agrees that such comparisons are applicable, and among those who think they are not is Sony’s Phil Harrison: “The approach that Second Life takes is that they provide the tools, and they are entirely server-based. It’s a very different approach, and it’s really inappropriate to make any direct comparison”.

Wise words. After all, in Home, you can customise your avatar and place whatever furniture you deem desirable wherever you want in your virtual private living space, but you cannot make your own furniture in the way that SL allows you to. The fact that SL is continually created by the collaborative efforts of its residents is, strange though it may seem, simultaneously its greatest strength and biggest weakness. The strength obviously lies in the fact that it never stands still and seems to be beyond easy classification. Is SL a ‘game’? Yes, if you want it to be. Is SL a 3D MySpace? Again, if that is what you want, that is what it is. In fact, Linden Lab have done user-generated content so brilliantly well that SL is both nothing and everything. It is almost as flexible as your imagination. A few limitations aside, it is a metaverse that adapts itself to be what you want it to be.
It all sounds good, so what is its weakness? For one thing, it is beyond simple classification. Edge Magazine is probably the most respectable voice on E-Entertainment there is, but this is their attempt at describing SL: “A special place that’s not really a game, only it sort of is.” Somehow that seems a bit hopeless, doesn’t it? The main article actually summed up the problem with “it’s nominally a MMOG but so far in advance of the genre that the term feels like a millstone”. Any attempt to encapsulate SL in a bite-sized synopsis is doomed to be quite inadequate, and that makes it incredibly hard to do justice in the space afforded a typical news report. It is in marked contrast to most videogames (something else to which SL bares superficial similarity). A videogame typically has a goal-oriented structure; you quickly establish your pre-determined destiny and set about manipulating the environment in order to reach it. But perhaps one of the most frustrating things about SL (for newbies at least) is that new arrivals to our world are faced with a situation a bit like “being dropped from a helicopter into New York City, and all you have is a sort of tattered bus map”. Those are Philip Rosedale’s words, not mine, and they conjure up an image of a person quite bewildered. It is widely acknowledged that many people are so put off by the sheer ambiguity that meets the question “What do I do now?” that they never return.

I have occasionally wondered if making SL slightly less open-ended might actually be to its advantage. I don’t mean turning it into an MMORPG with a pre-defined goal you cannot deviate from, but something more focused and so easier to catagorise. Phil Harrison: “The unifying theme of Home is entertainment, and the fact that users are connected together in a 3D world; and they can co-operate and communicate together”. You can simplify further. Take the kinds of entertainment that PS3 makes possible and place it in a 3D social space. Provided you know what kinds of entertainment PS3 is built for, and also know what the purpose of a 3D social space is (and you should, considering the fact you live your life in one) you have a very good idea regarding what ‘Home’ is.

“But that just sounds like a poor-man’s SL”, would probably be the retort of a person familiar with Linden Lab’s baby. “Whatever entertainment and co-operation is available in Home will obviously pale in comparison to what SL offers, because Home does not allow user-generated content and SL does. You can do anything in SL!” But can you? Can you really? I do not think that is the case at all. Saying ‘give them prims to build with and they will all be content creators’ is a bit like saying ‘give somebody a canvas, paint and a brush and they will be an artist’. Is that true? In a superficial sense I suppose it is, but inevitably one would compare one’s own efforts with the likes of Turner, Monet, Picasso, Dali, and guess what? Compared to these exceptional people the ‘art’ most of us are capable of is rubbish. Some people are gifted artists but the majority are not, and so we prefer to decorate our homes with professional artwork as opposed to hanging our own efforts on the wall. Exactly the same thing applies to the artistic medium of Prims. Very few SL residents have what it takes to be content creators in any meaningful way and so, just like RL, a minority makes stuff and the majority purchase this professionally-produced content, and are happy with the limited activity of arranging it to their tastes.

So, suddenly, one of the main objections to Home is pretty much invalidated. Why on Earth should it matter to the vast majority of SL residents if Sony are only allowing content that is purchased or freely downloaded from their store? After all, isn’t buying pre-made homes, furniture and clothes from professional content providers precisely what most of us do in SL?

A big influencing factor, one would think, would be the quality of the items being purchased. It is quite likely that the content and entertainment available in Home will have higher production values than SL. Not all PCs are equal and Linden Lab have to ensure that SL works on the minimum spec possible. But Sony can rest assured that every person connecting to Home has an extremely capable computing platform, designed from day one to handle the sort of grid computing that Linden Labs can only dream of. Sony can aim for the highest possible production values, safe in the knowledge that they are not alienating a proportion of the community whose machines cannot handle the complexity.

There can be little doubt that Home will have sharper graphics than SL, but one might argue the latter has something more interesting than photo realism: Unbridled imagination. Just look at the variety of avatars that inhabit the space. SL is about as far from the aesthetic uniformity of ‘The Matrix’ as it’s possible to get. I wonder, though, if the more wacky avatars and surreal environments require a suspension of disbelief that an immersionist would be comfortable with, but an augmentist rather less so? After all, the former mindset sees SL as a self-contained world; a parallel universe. The latter prefers to think of it as a continuation of real life and that requires a physical presence that is human. Prior to June 07, SL could comfortably accommodate both perspectives, but if Gwyn’s thoughtful analysis of the impact of intergrated voice is correct, after June 07 immersionists will be a dying breed. Admittedly it is hard to determine what kinds of roleplay will not be permissible with voice. Gender roleplay is obviously going to be impossible (assuming effective voice-altering technologies are unavailable), but what about Furries? Nobody can say how Furries vocalise and so presumably any voice is appropriate. But, still, the whole point of augmentism is that it is YOU, the real YOU in SL. And nobody is really a Furry, are they?

Actually, saying it is the ‘real’ you is not quite accurate. The goal is, after all, to AUGMENT, which implies an improvement; the modified self. Ourselves redesigned to reflect an ideal. And we all know what the ideal man and woman should look like because the media and the fashion industry are all to eager to show us. If SL ‘ought’ to be seen as a continuation of RL as opposed to a separate world, will that continuation extend to following the fashion dictates of the high street? If so, we should see the gradual disapearence of surreal creations like Furries and a rise in shops selling the designer clothes of a typical fashion outlet. But can the SL shops really hope to match the production values that Sony’s Home will allow? With immersionists all but ejected from SL, and augmentists setting about making SL as close to RL as they can get it, would it not be a simpler and quicker option to simply head for Home, which was built to cater exclusively for the consumerist-augmentist from day one, rather than tearing down the old ‘immersionist’ SL and rebuilding it?

Social networking. Web 2.0 has shown us what kinds of activities people enjoy partaking of in a networking space, and just look at the way Sony tick the boxes. ‘Your private apartment is where you can invite your friends and family’. MySpacers of the world, rejoice. ‘Pictures and movies can be imported from the hard drive or memory stick and put into virtual television sets or picture frames in a matter of seconds’. Flickr and YouTube fans, sing Sony’s praises.

Obviously SL allows all that and a whole lot more besides, but if there is a phrase that is actually quite good at describing SL it would be ‘Jack Of All Trades; Master Of None’. SL allows you to do almost anything, it just doesn’t allow you to do any one thing particularly well. Conversly, Home does not allow you to do ‘anything’ but it does seem to provide the kinds of social networking that Web 2.0 has proven popular: Sharing photos, movies and music. Moreover, it places all that in a 3D world built to cater for the majority taste of SL residents. A physical space in which to enjoy the company of friends, or make new ones based on shared interests rather than geographical location. The opportunity to personalise your space with professional content. It is certain to be more limited in its scope than SL, but that means Sony can focus and ensure what it does, it does WELL.

One thing they are almost certain to get more ‘right’ than Linden Labs is the control interface. After all, the PlayStation platform is a games console first and foremost, and that is a technology for which an intuitive control system is paramount. You should be able to hold the controller, and after a very brief period of familiarising yourself with the control scheme, it should effectively disappear. Console game designers have been perfecting that kind of intuitive control for decades. You can bet that a person who has been in Home for ten minutes will be navigating their way around the virtual space with a grace even the most senior of SL resident’s could not achieve.

All of what I said could be quite wrong. After all, I have not had an opportunity to try out Home and see for myself what it really is like. But I think it is a safe assumption to say it is going to provide customisable avatars navigating a 3D social space with ease, buying content to wear or decorate their personal living space with, and that it will cater for the Flickr, iTunes, YouTube and XboxLive in all of us. It will be way more limited in its ambition than SL, but at least it won’t have bitten off more than it can chew.

If you want a good indication that SL is a bit overambitious, surely the fact that it is in a perpetual state of near collapse is as good as any? I do not wish to criticise the Lindens for this. It is, after all, a price you must pay for pushing technology right to the edge of possibility. Let us not forget that SL is actually doing what many people told Philip Rosedale could not be done. It is a metaverse light-years ahead of Sony’s Home. Let us also not forget that Home will be Sony’s property for quite some time to come (they intend to allow user-generated content eventually, but when and to what extent is not known). But SL belongs to us. It is a bit rough around the edges, but it is infinitely malleable. Home, in contrast, will have high production values and a shiny gloss, but it will have limited flexibility. Both have had to make sacrifices, then, and now we must wait and see if it was Sony, or Linden Lab, that made the right choices.

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