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.

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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