What have you achieved??

I found it rather amusing that Hamlet Au, a.k.a. Wagner James Au in RL, did generate a lot of fuss with his proposed achievements system for Second Life, published first at Social Times and later on New World Notes. While some of his other suggestions are mostly fine (“better text chat” will definitely be an improvement worth developing, specially when Philip sort of promised to remove it from the sim software and put it on a stand-alone system, hopefully one that supports XMPP [like Google Talk/Wave]), the suggested achievements system has been quite controversial, as most commenters have been almost unanimously against it.

Hamlet’s reasoning is that SL already had an achievements system in the past: it was called the SL Leaderboard, and was also tied to a rating system. LL’s idea was to make content creation, avatar personalisation, and socialising not only more engaging, but competitive. And you got money prizes out for that. You can immediately figure out how this was so intensely gamed that it was dropped from SL.

Or wasn’t it…? The Emerald guys apparently found out that the ratings are still there, they just don’t work on the viewer, so it seems that they are tweaking their own SL Viewer to display the ratings again, like Prad reports.

The main reason why this is not a good idea is not merely that it will be heavily gamed, and thus quickly become worthless — again. No, the main reason is that it totally changes the assumption of what Second Life is supposed to be.

We can argue that almost all social networking tools these days have some form of “rating”, and that this trend is quite old. You can “like” things on Facebook, give “love” or “stars” on other platforms, rate eBay merchants, and so forth. VW Platforms like There.com also had a system of rating and achievements. In IMVU or Frenzoo, if you’re willing to spend some minutes chatting with random newbie strangers to welcome them in, you get points (and virtual money) for doing so. Most web-based forum systems have ways for participants to rate each other, and if you achieve a certain degree of ratings, you’ll get more functionality (from the ability to get a personalised avatar icon instead of a standard icon, to merely nice badges and titles). Digg is perhaps the ultimate ranking system, where news just get across if enough people are willing to announce them. If you take a look at my blog’s sidebar (well, at least in 2010; I might change the layout in the future, while this text will probably remain searchable on the Web for a few decades…), you’ll see a lot of badges — my Technorati rank, my Google Search rank, and the “achievement” to be one the best blogs for this or that company, and so forth. How are all those things different from an achievements system for a virtual world? They aren’t.

Why do I display them at all? Well, for two reasons mostly. The first is vanity and a sense of pride — “hey, I actually manage to get people to read my blog!” Pride/vanity are huge motivators for people to do things, specially if they can get some sort of public recognition for what they have done. That’s why we have prizes for all sorts of things. And the second reason is that it establishes credibility. I’m supposed to have been reviewed by an organisation that gives me the right to use a badge of some sort — or, as an alternative (like on Technorati), there is a public jury out there who thinks that I’m worth being read and give me nice positive rankings. Credibility and reputation is the coin of trade in virtual worlds and online communities — it’s thanks to these that I might be hired or contacted to do something.

Moon Adamant, my RL roomie, and who is far more clever than me (that’s mostly why she doesn’t blog; in her words, “if my opinions are worth anything, I don’t give them away for free by blogging”), summarises those two reasons in her famous statement: “All people are motivated either by Greed or Glory (or both)”. Glory is tied to public recognition and an appeal to vanity and pride; Greed is tied to the ability to get a tradeable asset (most people would think “money”, but, as said, “reputation/credibility” is also a tradeable asset). Some have both. Some clearly just work for Glory (e.g. open source developers). For most of us, we respond to both.

Now, the gaming industry — and to a degree, the social networking industry; with Facebook as the largest game distribution platform worldwide, it becomes increasingly hard to separate both — is quite keen in exploring those two prime motivators of human nature. Games are naturally competitive — some clever thinkers attribute the appeal to gaming to an abstract, simplified way of tapping our naturally competitive nature. In real life, we’re always being “ranked” — based on our social status, the clothes we wear, the house we live in, the car we drive, the salary we earn, the diplomas we’ve collected, and so forth — but often we forget that the real world is indeed a constant competitive struggle (well, we are part of evolution after all… 🙂 ). Sometimes those achievements are immediately visible and ostensibly shown — diplomas hung on walls, prizes displayed on shelves, medals exhibited on military uniforms, and so forth. Most of the time it’s more subtle (like in the style of clothes you wear) but nevertheless it still is displayed in some form or other.

Games without rankings rarely succeed (there are a few notorious exceptions). As a teenager, I was fond of pencil-and-paper role-playing games, and once, our Game Master designed a new RPG where there were no rankings at all and we would not “earn” experience points, money, or levels. We tried it for a few sessions, but it was very weird. There seemed to be no point in doing so; we would say, “hey, this is just like real life, what’s the fun in that?”

As social networking became more and more prominent on the Web, it shouldn’t come to us as a surprise that designers and programmers tried to appeal to its entertainment ability. Turning social networking more competitive resulted in people getting more engaged with it. We compete to have the most followers on Twitter and Facebook, or the highest number of friends in any other social networking site. Quality is worth little compared with quantity, specially because quality is hard to quantify (except, of course, by ranking… where the subjective nature of quality will just be replaced by the old adage of “the highest number of people that like something”).

Thus, I’m not surprised that people like Hamlet, worried that SL is not “engaging” enough, and pointing out that SL’s experience is so different from other social networking platforms, thinks that re-introducing rankings is a good idea. Newbies won’t feel lost if they can see at least one familiar thing. They might have no idea how complex and intricate SL’s society and economy is, but at least they could pop up a list of achievements to complete a few tasks and tell themselves, “I can do this. I can visit those places too and earn a badge” or “I can find a lot of friends to add to my list and get a few achievements too, it’s not so hard”. This might become a motivator for staying around for longer.

It also pulls SL away from what it currently is — it turns the immersive experience of being part of a virtual world into merely another form of entertainment.

The point here is recognising that being immersed in a virtual world is entertaining by itself (yes, even in spite of lag!!). However, there is a huge difference between SL and, say, Facebook. Even if you don’t have a clue on how Facebook works (and I admit I always feel lost with some of their UI design choices!), and you’re not in it for playing the like & add friends “game”, at least you can enjoy Facebook by searching for things or adding photos, or writing notices, or, well, play games. There is an immediate entertainment opportunity in Facebook which is apparent to anyone who has at least opened a Web browser — way more than, say, Twitter or Plurk.

Finding this quality of self-entertaining in SL is very hard. Let’s all face it: we are part of the second generation that has been totally brainwashed by TV into losing all our abilities of self-entertainment. We rely upon others to provide that entertainment instead. We require massive doses of daily entertainment, and there is an almost infinite supply of entertainment of all kinds. If we already had a lot of choices in the 1980s, in 2010, thanks to the complexity of the Internet, the number of choices has increased exponentially way above what anyone could predict. And they all compete against each other. TV, perhaps for the first time in decades, is (very) slowly losing some appeal contrasted with the Web, at least in some age groups and countries — that’s how more powerfully engaging the Web can be. One reason for that is that you are not “competing” to watch TV, it’s too passive. You can watch YouTube instead and at least compete by adding friends, favourites, rank videos, and so forth — the ultimate entertainment goal is the same (watching videos on a screen), but the added competitiveness built-in into YouTube makes it more compelling than TV.

And some entertainment providers have cleverly added Greed to Glory as well. If you publish a lot of videos on YouTube and have lots of subscribers, you can sell ads. The same happens on blogs with Google AdSense, for instance. On other social networking tools, you might not get money directly, but other forms of tradeable assets. Greed, connected to Power — the ability to force others to do what you want — is the prime motivator for Wikipedia: become a Wiktator and you get to rewrite history as you wish. What can be a bigger incentive than becoming Big Brother?

But in SL you don’t get anything for your time spent in it. There is no publicly recognisable “award” for, say, having a thousand friends (nobody knows how many friends you have) or a 25,000-item inventory. The fact you’ve visited a thousand locations is just known to yourself. Even if you’re simply motivated by greed, the amount of L$ you’ve earned is not public. In fact, nothing is “public” about yourself except the clothes/avatar you wear and the buildings you own on virtual space. Consequently, for a newbie, expecting a gaming quality common to all social networking tools, feel utterly lost. “What is the point?”, ask 10,000 newly registered users every day (which leave after a few minutes when they don’t find an answer).

So from a shallow perspective, a public achievements system sounds like a good idea for newbies, and probably would be appealing for some veterans as well — they would be able to “prove” they had been around for long, collected a lot of “friends”, saw a lot of places, and are somehow “superior” than others because of that. And if they can use those achievements to potentiate, say, more sales, this system might neatly tie glory to greed. Just imagine a live music venue in SL where, to attend it, you would require to have a “No Griefing Achievement” badge, which you’d earn if you were never subjected to an Abuse Report for griefing for, say, 100 days (now imagine how this would be gamed as everybody would report others to prevent them for earning that badge!).

However, the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that we’re really seeing things from the wrong perspective. Second Life is not about happy newbies. It’s about high-quality immersion. And that has very low appeal to the vast majority of people out there.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...