What have you achieved??

Like the majority of you, I’m always shocked that SL has 20 million registered users, and that the pace of new user registration hasn’t slowed down since 2006, but that the number of active users doesn’t grow much more above a million (depending on how you count them), and the number of simultaneous logins is showing a slow but constant decline. Many shrug these off as being just alts and ‘bots, but we know that’s not true. Most, in fact, are really just people who heard about SL, logged in, and left. They couldn’t find anything appealing about SL. After 7 years of SL, you still continue to see very knowledgeable people out there commenting on articles that they don’t understand what SL is all about. It simply defies the classification of anything familiar. It’s neither a tool nor a platform; it’s not exactly a social networking environment; and while it might be entertaining for some, it’s immensely boring for others. The problem with being unique is that you cannot compare it to anything. A newbie might immediately think “this is a nice game” because visually it’s 3D, and we’re conditioned to believe that anything in 3D on a computer is a game. But then it lacks all characteristics of a game — nothing in SL requires competitiveness. There are no goals.

Others might not be interested in the “gaming” aspect but just come to SL to find a date (uncountable zillions of social networking sites, most of them with millions of users, are just really pretexts for announcing the availability to get a date — the media, these days, hardly ever notices how the vast majority of all those sites are really just about getting cheap and easy sex). This is also hard to do, and very difficult to figure out where to get it. Also, it lacks most of the tools of the dating sites: you cannot compare profiles. You don’t get pictures of your potential partners. While you can use voice to chat with them, you cannot use a webcam. So what’s the point? Of course some people prefer to just watch cartoon porn — and if it weren’t so, Stroker Serpentine wouldn’t be a millionaire! — but that’s just one of the millions of the possible fetishes; SL doesn’t offer more alternatives.

No wonder that if you exclude gaming, cheap entertainment, and dating/sex from SL — not because it doesn’t exist, but because it’s so hard to find! — the appeal for the vast majority of users is quickly lost.

Why does SL thrive, then? The answer is simple: it appeals to a very small niche market, one that reaches out to people with this amazing and extraordinary ability of knowing how to entertain themselves. Nowadays we call this ability “being creative”, but that’s just a way to describe one aspect of it. Let’s turn the clock back a few decades. As a kid, my parents were quite keen to make sure that me and my brother learned how to play on our own. I believe there was a practical approach to it — kids that entertain themselves and figure out to have some fun on their own will leave their parents in peace. But it also rewires our brain patterns to focus on creativity. Surprisingly, even creativity without talent (which is my case!) is pretty compelling; the notion that we can have fun on our own and create our own sources of fun is actually very powerful. It leads to the ability to think. It taps into our potential for self-criticism, into our ability to fight laziness and instead apply our enthusiasm to develop new things, and have fun doing so. In our later, professional life, it will lead to a totally different attitude — one where engaging in your work is not a nightmare that has to be endured, but something you actually enjoy doing because you’re tackling with problem solving. Your “achievement” is the recognition that you can actually do complex things if you apply your mind and skills to them, and your enjoyment comes from achieving exactly that.

No wonder parents used to encourage kids to self-entertain themselves. It was part of a certain education style.

These days, however, we just turn on the TV, and don’t bother with the kids. They become quiet (or at least they won’t pester you) if they just can watch things they like. They don’t require to develop any special skills to be passive TV watchers — there is no need for introspection, self-analysis, self-criticism, problem solving, intellectual cogitation, and obviously, they won’t ever develop the sense of enjoyment of using any of those mental skills. Also note that none of these skills are really tied to what we usually label as “cleverness”. You don’t need a huge IQ to be able to have fun doing thing on your own. Curiously, however — and IQ tests are just IQ tests, they just measure how good you are at passing at IQ tests — people who have developed this ability of self-entertainment are, to a degree, better at the IQ tests. Perhaps our parents and grandparents had actually a point.

Let’s also not forget that the ability to play — recreating an abstract form of reality, simplified to a degree appropriate for kids, and applying some skills to deal with problems when playing — is what mammals evolved as a tool for acquiring later skills. Anyone who had dogs or cats as pets will see how much time they spend being encouraged by their parents to play. They will wrestle with each other, jump on bits of colourful ribbons or balls, run around the home, generally driving any pet-loving human into despair (there is a limit to “cuteness”!). But that’s how mammals learn vital skills for their survival in their adult stage. We humans are not different. By learning how to play, we acquire the skills I’ve mentioned above, which will aid us during all our lives.

TV, by contrast, sucks all the vitality of our brains and turns us into mindless drones. Nevertheless, the drive to “get entertained” is not diminished; it’s part of our brain wiring. We just never acquire the necessary skills to create that entertainment, and this will mean we’ll constantly require, for the remaining of our lives, that others provide us with that entertainment. Fortunately, these days, there is no lacking of sources of entertainment, and the number is growing every day.

What this ultimately means is that the current society is deeply divided. There are a few providers of entertainment — what we label as “creative people”, although, as said, you can be “creative” without having any talents or skills that we would label as “artistic” — and vast masses of entertainment consumers. Just take a look at YouTube and see how many people actually create and distribute videos, and how many are just passive watchers (not even bothering to create their profiles!). There is really nothing we can do about this: it’s just the way our society is currently split. The successful endeavours which appeal to hundreds of millions of users have figured out ways of releasing passive entertainment to the masses, often capitalising on those few providers of entertainment to do it for free (appealing to their Glory!). YouTube is certainly the best example, but Facebook, although more subtly so, also works the same way.

Three years ago I wrote an article about what happens with the kind of people that have no ability to entertaining themselves. They get bored. We’re the Bored Generation. In that article, I was optimistically showing that there is really quite a lot to do in SL, it’s just too hard to find.

But… is that really so? All the residents I interact with in SL regularly have a totally different attitude. They come from a diverse background, from different places on the world, with completely different professional skills, and a huge difference in ages, from 20 years to 80. Some are physically impaired. For many, using a computer is hard. For most, 3D virtual worlds was a novelty before they joined SL (the same applies to me!). Surprisingly, in spite of all those handicaps, they never get bored in SL. The UI, the lag, the crashes, the drama, hardly affects them. Sure, they all grumble about it. That never prevented them to log in over and over again. Some make money out of SL; others just get the Glory appeal and just look for public recognition. Some appear not to be driven by anything else than merely having fun in SL. For all of them the notion that SL is boring is completely alien.

What is common to all of them is that “boredom” is a state of being unable to entertain themselves. But they all have developed that skill very early on in their lives. Sure, some are really artists, and very talented ones; but the majority is like me, lacking any talent whatsoever, but still having this uncanny and rare ability of self-entertainment. For us, SL is a wonderful playground with infinite possibilities. A slow teleport, losing half the inventory, or a disappearing friends list are merely annoyances. Searching for fun things to do is important for us, but it’s not critical — we’ll eventually find interesting things to do. And if we can’t find them, we create our own.

Now this is where I think a current fallacy resides. The highly competitive nature of the entertainment industry has established a metric for success: the number of users it attracts. A secondary metric is how much money the company earns, but it’s a distant second. Facebook, YouTube, and all those social networking tools attract hundreds of millions of users, but they all share the same characteristic: none are financially solid. Nevertheless, the companies behind them always get more funding (or good value for their shares on the stock market) just because they can show user numbers. Since their focus is attracting people without any self-entertaining skills — which are, these days, the vast majority — “quality” is less important than “quantity”. Given enough people in a service, a few will always be happy to provide free entertainment for all others, and that’s what matters.

Second Life is utterly different. The residents that remain, year after year, all have self-entertainment skills. But anyone utterly lacking them will quickly leave SL. It’s simply not appealing enough. Obviously you can draw newbies to live music events and beach parties, and for a while they will return, but it won’t be engaging enough. The amount of entertainment in SL is staggeringly high, but since it’s so hard to find for someone without patience (another skill that also comes with a training in self-entertainment; you learn that sometimes having fun doing things requires time and persistence!), they will quickly abandon it for other things.

Although I’m ultimately very sorry to say so, I now start to think that SL will never become mainstream, no matter how simplified the UI becomes, how stable it is, how little lag it has, and how many “social networking” improvements are added, including, who knows, badges for achievements. The mainstream simply lacks the requirements to feel engaged in an immersive virtual world. Worrying too much about the “first hour experience” is counter-productive in the long term. The best possible first hour experience will not attract the vast masses of members of the Bored Generation, because SL requires using a lot of skills that they simply lack, and have no interest in acquiring.

Instead, Linden Lab should just focus on the ones that do have the appropriate skills, because those are the ones that make this US$ 0.6 bio. industry work. Those are the ones paying tier and SL Marketplace fees. Those are the ones that make Linden Lab one of the few lucrative businesses out there, without any requirement of additional funding, IPOs on the stock market, or selling out to bigger corporations.

So probably what we need is not a dumbed-down SL, but a more complex way to interact with our environment — say, introducing meshes 🙂 We probably don’t need to worry too much about lag, but about better avatars, more complex attachments, and a better inventory system. We probably don’t need to worry much about integration with external tools (except where it really makes sense, e.g. for single sign-on), but instead on how to do the shopping experience more engaging (Philip promised to do a lot of improvements on that area, like a curious new way to try before you buy).

We don’t need an achievements system with silly badges for newbies to find what they wish in SL. Forget the newbies from the Bored Generation. No matter what we do for them, they will never stick around. Instead, give the handful of users with the skill of self-entertainment that register every day better tools to apply this skill to SL. We might never grow to a billion users, but we will definitely “improve the human condition” by gathering the largest pool of creative talent in the whole planet. And if that’s not an achievement, I don’t know what it is.

In the mean time, stick to user-generated achievement systems, like this one proposed by SignpostMarv Martin. A lot of people are already developing their own systems — sometimes integrated into their own MMORPGS inside SL, sometimes as tools for newbies. We don’t need Linden Lab to develop one for SL — and utterly fail doing so.

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