The Social Experiment

When I first left the Orientation Island on my rezday, a bit over five years ago, I remember to have bumped into (literally!) a lot of immensely creative residents. What they built on sandboxes was simply awesome and kept me amazed for hours upon hours. But what amazed me most was that the majority of residents back then were not top-of-the-line 3D modellers, designers, or architects. They still did utterly amazing work just by learning a moderately complex set of tools, but one that was pretty much suited to them.

Fading into virtuality

I also remember when my roomie Moon Adamant started tweaking with the building tools. She’s got a background in architecture iRL (that’s why the building above looks so good!). She went insane with the few features that the in-world Second Life tools provided. “Oh no, prims, nobody uses prims since 1995!” was a usual expletive, shared with almost all professional 3D modellers, designers, or architects. But with enough practice, she now is way more faster building things in Second Life than in using any other 3D design tool — no matter how much experience she had with those, or how simple they are (like SketchUp).

What was Second Life about?

That was one of my very first questions, and the one that, of course, has no answer. But at the very beginning I had no idea what to expect — a game, probably, like TheSims, something like that. The lack of any instructions didn’t help, but most games are supposed to be intuitive these days (I fondly remember the days of games that came with 150-page-manuals 🙂 ), so that was fine.

So, what did people do back then?

They created things.

And that made me wonder. The appeal to a lot of games was the ability to create your own things; Civilization was one of the first to reach a huge, organised fan base who were always patching and modding the game. But almost all popular games since the mid-1990s had groups of fans creating more and more content. Soon game developers understood that if they made their games easier to patch and modify, the game would be more long-lived (and, indirectly, it would also help them to launch their own “extensions” and “upgrades” later on). Of course, in the first years of the millenium, nobody knew better than Maxis — first with SimCity and later with The Sims — how important it was to allow user-generated content that could be shared among fans.

But surprisingly (to someone who definitely spent way too long playing around with The Sims!), user-generated content was not even what came to my mind back then; I sort of assumed that all games, in one form or the other, had user-generated content, or would soon have. No, what fascinated me what the eagerness of all those residents happily creating stuff. And then I asked them why they did work so hard on that.

The answer was often “because it’s fun”, but also “because then I can sell it”. That made sense. It was my first contact with the virtual economy on SL, and all of a sudden, I understood the drive to be creative: creativity, in our virtual world, pays off. It pays off to learn the building tools; or how to script; or how to create clothes, animations, whatever. All you need to do is to spend all your available time practicing a lot with the tools, and you’ll hit gold.

And all around me was a very diligent crowd; I used to spend hours learning from others how to link prims together or how to drop scripts into them; then I would log off for most of the day, and return later, just to find that my new acquaintances hadn’t left their spot. While I had been idly spending my time with unimportant things (oh, say, working for a living; doing the home chores; going out to shop for food), they would have remained inside SL and continue to build.

Now, of course I understand that “new users” are often so fascinated by a fancy tool or gadget that they might spend overdue time with it (it certainly was my case in those early days!). But back when I was an utterly clueless newbie, long-time veterans at that time — people like Washu Zebrastripe, Damien Fate, Eggy Lippmann… — continued to log in every day and spend uncountable hours creating content for Second Life. One would probably think that as time passes by (the appeal of a game is usually around six months, and designing it to make people play the game regularly beyond that period is a real challenge). Was the appeal to making money the only incentive?

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