Three years ago, I tackled this question from a different approach. I tried to list the reasons why the SL residents are such extraordinary people, and, as a consequence, since SL is a virtual world created by its users, why SL is so special. But I think that I came way closer to the mark with another insight, a few months earlier: people in SL that get bored leave quickly.
Let me quote myself (which is terribly bad form, but I’ll do it nevertheless!):
Sometimes the answer is misleading: “I’m here, I don’t see anybody, but I can talk to the others, is there anything to do in SL beyond chatting in Group IM Chat?” It takes a level of abtraction — or some luck with a friendly helper/veteran — to understand the whole concept of SL. It’s so unlike anything else — even for an experienced gamer! — that the options don’t make any sense. And, ultimately, this leads to frustration. Not being able to go where the fun is — not even figuring out what is fun, and where it is — is another major reason for people simply leaving. They get bored. They turn the TV back on, since it’s easy to zap across channels.[…]
Second Life is perhaps the most demanding mainstream entertainment platform ever devised. For creative artists and programmers, it’s definitely the best thing invented since sliced bread… but not for the “TV generation” which demands instant gratification at a push of a button. […]
I think I can now complete the thought. It’s not really just because SL is incredible complex (like Philip repeats now so often — yes, SL is very, very complex, both from a technological point of view, but also from its socio-economic analysis) and it’s hard to do all those things. It’s just hard to have fun.
Well, the surprising answer is that SL is really not to blame. We are.
It’s time to do a bit of time-travel — just a few decades back, before the era of Playstations & Wii, easy-to-access-and-rent DVDs, 500 TV channels, or even the whole Internet. In my country, my parents were the first generation to take TV for granted — almost everybody in the then-called middle classes owned a TV, and although there were just 2 TV channels, people lived with it as part of their daily routine. Even on the most remote places you’d find a TV set somewhere — sometimes just black-and-white, but it was there. I remember that the only exception, some 35 years ago, was a tiny apartment that my daddy used to rent for the summer vacations, and we had to bring our own semi-portable TV with us — a few years later the landlord did indeed install a TV set too, as that particular location became more tourist-friendly. But the point is, my parents were already used to TV (like their own parents were used to radio) as a form of cheap entertainment, easily available.
While I’m not so sure how advanced the research about the impact of TV on children was in the 1970s, at least I know that my parents thought it would be inadvisable to let my brother and I spend all the time in front of the TV. Granted, there was far fewer things to watch on TV those days, but nevertheless we had some rules. We never watched TV during dinner or lunch, for example, until our late teens (with very few exceptions). We had to do our homework first, or do our share of the house chores. There was a limit to how much time we were allowed to watch TV. And we were not too different from other families — most parents in those days had similar house rules. In fact, in my high school days, anyone boasting that they watched TV for “several hours a day, every day, because they had cool parents” would be seen as a weirdo — although, of course, someone without TV at home would be as weird as well! The notion that you would just see the adequate amount of TV was part of our education, at least in my community of friends, and we just took it for granted.
What did we do in our spare time when we were not watching TV? Well, we had all sorts of games and hobbies. Lego was perhaps the most inspiring way to spend our time, since we could build our own cities; my brother and I used to have a rather complex imaginary economy running on some of those cities! Since my parents were not exactly filthy rich, and toys were expensive in those days, we never had many (compared to the sheer amount of toys every kid gets today like the complete Fisher Price car range). I learned how to sew because I wanted to have new sets of clothes for my dolls and plushies — and no, I wasn’t any good at it, I’m not good at anything that requires talent. But I had great fun just doing that! (even if at the end the clothes would just rip apart at the seams after constant use) And I think that I became attracted to the novelty of computers because you could do so many things with them which didn’t require any talent whatsoever; the computer doesn’t force you to create aesthetically pleasing things — they can be ugly, the computer will not complain! — but at least I got some sense of fulfilment while learning to programme it. In my later teens, the ability to typewrite my own stories meant that even if I couldn’t afford a new book, I could at least write my own — to the utter despair of my poor parents, since mechanical typewriters are not exactly the most silent device on Earth. (In those days, portable laptops were still science fiction.) And I had to drag it to the holidays as well!
But at a younger age, the notion that we kids had to invent our own games was quite widespread. Most of the time spent with neighbours, friends, or family was spent inventing games. A bit like Calvinball, the rules would change all the time. While I was not particularly a “physical” kind of person, the games would involve mostly disassembling bits and pieces from different toys and put them together in ways their designers would have never approved. Blowing up Lego walls with electric trains running very fast was a favourite one, played at my neighbours’ place (they had more rail tracks and we could get it run longer to gather speed!). Boxes from toys, with a bit of cardboard glued on, bits and pieces from all sorts of different things, all were “assembled” together to make unexpected and utterly surreal things, all turned into great fun, but mostly because we were always coming up with new unexpected designs. “What if we could put the Snoopy plushie on a Lego catapult — how far could we throw it? Will it be able to derail the electric train?” That sort of thing would give us hours of fun 🙂 And pretty much everybody I was in close contact with used to think in a similar way. We really didn’t need many toys, we just needed to tweak the ones we get (often to the despair of our poor parents, as tweaking often meant breaking them). And in a sense we were not much different from the previous generation, who had even less toys, but perhaps more skill in tweaking the ones they had.