The Feeling of Self-Accomplishment in Second Life


I believe that this is a wide, vast area, and I’m also pretty sure that different people will have completely different definitions. In my case, I’ve been blessed with a huge amount of self-motivation to do pretty much everything, even during moments of despair, with two sole exceptions. The first is, of course, exhaustion. Exhaustion is also hard to define, because some people get tired very easily (and I’m talking about mental exhaustion in this context), and exhaustion is not merely being tired — it’s the inability, at some point, to do any work because even the slightest inkling of doing something remotely related to “work” will immediately trigger stress symptoms (like anxiety attacks or utter tiredness); in other cases, it’s also hard to separate exhaustion from lazyness (or its closely-related sister, procrastination). While I’m healthy, I often am too tired to work, and need a break, or some sleep; sometimes, I just postpone things because I’m not “in the mood”, and that’s just lazyness. When labouring under exhaustion, things are different: anything that I conceptually view as “work” — in the sense that someone tells me to do something for their interest, not mine — immediately triggers a lot of physical conditions: blood pressure changes, heart rate changes, dizziness, utter tiredness, the physical feeling of not even being able to raise a hand towards “work”. Some of those conditions are similar to the ones exhibited by people under depression, and they’re also physical; but the causes are rather different. Ordinarily, though, I have always the ability to self-motivate myself to do things I dislike (exhaustion is for me a very rare condition that happens every 5 or 6 years or so, and usually lasts for several weeks). This is done by setting goals towards an objective, and pushing my will to accomplish those goals. Sometimes the mere accomplishment of one goal is enough to provide further encouragement to drag me along to the next; sometimes I need to constantly encourage myself to go from goal to goal, because all are perceived as being hateful things that I have no other option to comply with, but nevertheless disliking them all the time. In my case, the former is more usual — there is always some satisfaction of meeting a goal, and that is enough to keep me happy towards the next one.

So under my assumption, motivation is what drives you to accomplish something that otherwise you wouldn’t bother to do. If it has external causes — like, getting a check for your efforts, some compliments, recognition, fame, glory… — it might be synonymous with incentive. When an external cause is not apparent, it’s simply just motivation: for example, the motivation to finish a task at work quickly because you want to go home earlier.

When talking about leisure instead of work, obviously motivation also plays a role. This is way more apparent on physical activities — there is a drive or incentive, established by ourselves, to accomplish a certain goal. It could be training to be able to run a half-marathon, for example. Nobody else establishes that goal but you; the incentive is to accomplish something which you set as a goal. While not all types of leisure are tied to motivation and setting goals — like, for instance, watching TV! — many are. Even picking up a book to read can have as a goal finishing that book.

Obviously I cannot claim that I have analysed all types of leisure activities! But many that come to mind have similar models than, well, work-related tasks. The only difference is that for most the goals are set by the person engaging in the activity, and not influenced by external causes. Of course there are “grey” areas. Imagine that you do ballroom dancing as a hobby; it makes sense to accomplish the required techniques at about the same time as the rest of the class, so that you can all go dance together on a end-of-year ballroom dancing event. Every leisure activity that involves others usually have commonly-defined goals. However, even then, it’s something that you agree to, and are not forced or conditioned to accept. For example, let’s say that you and your friends decide to learn Japanese because you are expecting to travel together to Japan in two years, and find it useful to learn the language on your spare time. There is a “deadline” commonly agreed upon. Nevertheless, at any point between now and the day you board the plane, you can drop the course if you think it’s too intensive, too stressy, “too much like real work”. Or you can forfeit travelling to Japan altogether. The world won’t end — in the sense that, unlike at work, you won’t be fired, demoted, or yelled at by the boss. Even on collaborative activities, there is this notion of willingly setting a common goal and not attaching undue importance to achieving things in a set time limit (unlike what happens at work, where both someone else sets the time limit and forces you to stick to it). If you accomplish your goal in your own time frame, then you feel good about it. It’s this feeling of self-accomplishment that makes people turn to their hobbies over and over again (or switch hobbies when you don’t feel good about them; I remember that happening to me several times).

Some tasks are more prone to trigger this feeling of self-accomplishment than others. Learning a physical task — riding a bike, swimming, playing some sport — are excellent examples, since at the beginning we might find it impossible, but, after enough practice, we start to grasp the overall concept, and we motivate ourselves to go further and further. Other, solitary tasks might be harder to trigger the satisfaction from achieving that goal. I remember when I wrote my first novel, perhaps when I was 13 or 14. When I finished it, I thought: “What now?” Because, well, it was not meant to be read by anyone but myself. And when re-reading it, it was obviously crap. Worse than that, I didn’t even feel the urge to make revisions; what seemed to be best was to throw it into the waste bin and forget all about it. Even after writing a lot in my teens I still didn’t think it was worth reading — specially because there was just one reader, myself. So it was rather hard to get any satisfaction from all that time wasted in front of a typewriter.

I also remember how I experimented with other artistic tasks — drawing, painting, playing music, and so forth. I’m terrible at all of them, and it’s not a question of techique — in most cases, I had pretty decent teachers. I just had absolutely no talent at all. And so, no matter how much I applied my efforts to improve, I never achieved anything (while I was green with envy of my cousins, who could effortlessly draw pretty much anything without even thinking, or without needing to learn any technique — they were just naturally gifted. They still are!). Photography, and later movies, pretty much had the same result: lots of effort, no goals ever achieved, no satisfaction. Not to mention sports — I was absolutely terrible at all of them, and managed to be the worst sports student at high school in my year (they just didn’t have the courage to flunk me 🙂 ). That certainly wasn’t the kind of activities I wanted to do in my leisure time!

I guess that most people that require a hobby that gives them some sense of self-accomplishment need to find first some activity they’re good at, or at least one where they feel encouraged to apply their skills and mind in order to progress and achieve some goals. But perhaps it’s not so for some, who might be perfectly at ease with the idea of doing something in their leisure time they’re not good at, but don’t worry at all about it — just enjoy it and relax (again, fishing seems to fall neatly into this category!).

For the ones that require engaging activities for their leisure, I have found nothing more compelling that Second Life.

Now don’t get me wrong; this is not yet-another-of-Gwyn’s-evangelising-pieces-about-how-good-Second-Life-is. It’s just looking at a list of “requirements” for engaging activities that trigger the satisfaction of self-accomplishment and see how well SL fits into that list.

First and foremost, it’s the no rules environment — something which keeps so many people away from SL because it’s not a game. People expect to be told what to do, even in their leisure time. But in SL, we set our own rules and nobody else is able to force those upon us (well, except for criminal activity, which obviously is forbidden). I conjectured, about a year ago, on a long essay about self-entertainment, that SL is only appealing to a very special group of people who always had this talent of knowing how to entertain themselves. This time, I’m looking at the same issue from a different perspective.

Second Life is immensely gratifying — but in different ways than gamification experts propose. On social sites, one goal is to have the largest number of followers, and making the process of adding friends fun and entertaining (like Google Plus does with Circles and its cute animations) is a way to contribute to that aspect. Collectors, for example, have often the goal of having “the biggest collection”, or the “most valuable collection”. There is this aspect of being “better” than others at the same task — competition is a strong incentive. US companies, arising in a culture of competition, know very well what to do to get people engaged in activities; gamification is just another tool to increase competitiveness (at an abstract level) and give people goals. Would any one use Twitter if they had no followers and no friends to follow?

By contrast — and specially after LL got rid of the rating system and the leader boards (most people will need to look up the history sites to know what they were) — Second Life doesn’t offer any real “competition” system inside the virtual world, and no obvious way to set “goals”. So it mostly means that people have to find their own goals (and they don’t necessarily need to be “competitive” goals either).

At the early stages, these are very simple goals — not unlike walking through an orientation area. I remember my own goals: first, design an avatar. That took me 90 minutes! But it was great fun, and once I had created the shape of my avatar, I felt I had “accomplished” something. But nobody told me that an avatar was important; or how much time I should spend on it. In fact, most newbies at that time rarely changed their avatars and just jumped straight ahead into the mess of the mainland without looking back. The second “goal” was, well, finishing orientation area and figuring out what it was for. I left that very much confused. Then came the divejump into the old Welcome Area, where I learned how to chat to other residents. At this stage I was actually impressed at how many people were simultaneously logged in! (Little did I know about the “clustering” effect of certain areas)

It was when I realised that all in-world objects could be done by residents (even programmed by them!) that I was truly impressed. I spent two days (and these were 16-hour days!) just to figure out how to link two items together. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t make a chain of links set to physical without creating havoc (pun intended!). I broke down freebies to look at what was inside them and try to understand how scripting worked. These were all self-set goals. Nobody told me I was supposed to build content; nobody told me about time-frames to learn new tasks and skills. It was a process of discovering how things worked. But at the same time, I was immersed in a social environment: others, like me, were roaming the world trying to find out answers for themselves. Sometimes I went with them to things like the Ivory Tower Library of Primitives because someone overheard that this was a great place to learn about building. Then we exchanged landmarks, jumped to shops, found out that we had no money to buy most things… and then were pestered every half hour or so by frantic Lindens trying to get us to attend events. Which we did. Some, like the Show & Tell events, would be great to learn about how things are done. Others, like parties, were great for meeting new people and exchange ideas.

Both people that view Second Life as a hobby — “leisure” — or as work have the same sense of self-accomplishment every time they do something in SL. There is this constant notion that you can do things, and they are not very hard to do — and when some of those things are hard (like learning to place your first house on a parcel), when you manage that, you feel good about yourself. The visual environment is a bliss for self-accomplishment, because you can immediately get feedback on what you’re doing right. A typical example: putting on a new set of clothes. It happens pretty quickly (well, minus rezzing time…). When it does, you have this sense of wonder, “wow, my avatar now has a new set of clothes!”. This is the kind of experience that, say, a painter might have after hours and hours of patiently placing ink dots on a surface, and then looking back and see the whole picture unfolding. But in SL the picture unfolds instantly. Similarly, a programmer might spend weeks tweaking a few lines of code, and just at some point, things start to make sense. In Second Life, however, just making an object react to touch — one line of code! — provides instant gratification (no wonder, though, that some universities include Second Life programming as part of their curricula to teach students how to write computer programs — it’s because the students will experience instant gratification when their objects get animated with simple scripts. I know, I’ve done some scripting classes, and that’s what happens all the time).

There are few environments providing similar experiences. Most hobbies have a learning period which can be more or less frustrating until some skills are mastered. One of the reasons that sports are so compelling is that an untrained human body can, with regular training, reach 90% of its maximum efficiency within a week or so (for a healthy person). It’s astonishing how wonderful our human bodies actually are! Of course, 90% is not what an athlete is aiming at, and to get those extra few percent is what makes the difference between a hobbyist, an amateur competing on some venues, a professional, and an Olympic-class athlete — each extra achievement requires an insane amount of practice just to squeeze a tiny bit of extra performance. But for a hobbyist, 90% is pretty good to enjoy oneself, if the only motivation is having some fun.

Second Life is relatively similar, but at a mental level. For those things that don’t require special talent, most residents, after a week, have mastered the interface, which is rather hard to learn (that’s why most give up after less than an hour). But once that week elapses, you’re not a newbie any more: you have mastered all skills for “normal” enjoyment of all activities in SL. You might not be able to become the next land baron or fashionista in a week, but you will be able to buy and sell land like any other resident, place objects in your parcel, and know where to shop for clothes. Contrast that with other mental activities like learning a new language!

It’s true that anyone can “learn” how to use Facebook (or email!) in even less than a week, but that’s because those social online activities are incredibly simple — when compared to the wealth of activities that are possible in SL. There is such a restricted amount of things you can do on most social online environments that obviously they’re not hard to learn; but there is really not much to do in them anyway. That doesn’t mean they cannot be enjoyable. Turning on the TV and searching for a channel takes five minutes to learn and gives instant gratification, repeatedly, during one’s whole life — watching TV is certainly enjoyable for the majority of the inhabitants of this planet. But there is not much more to do; nothing more to learn; TV has an incredibly limited set of things to do (well, of course, you can also chat about what you’ve just seen or are willing to watch, and this happens outside the “TV experience”, but it still remains limited). SL is at the other end of the spectrum: you can do everything, some things are insanely complex to achieve (like, say, running a network of fashion shops or a global land baroning operation), but after a few days, one learns enough to engage in perhaps 90% of all activities. Not as an expert, but as a hobbyist — which is more than fine for an environment suitable for leisure.

All this environment is very hard to explain to a non-resident. Looking at Second Life as “leisure”, it’s the kind of “leisure” that is crammed full of experiences after experiences, and instead of having a single “goal”, it has many, and multiple ones, and all are set by none other than our own selves. I remember that I was so overwhelmed with the amount of things to see, the sheer number of new skills to learn, and the infinite number of people to meet, that when I first saw someone saying that he was “bored, because there is nothing to do in SL” I almost strangled him on the spot! How could someone be bored? Even in 2004, to be able to see the whole world, would take uncountable weeks. Extropia DaSilva managed to calculate in 2007 or so how long it would take to cross the main continent from one side to side, just walking; about that time, I made a short calculation that if we spent 1 minute at each coordinate in SL, we would take a century to see it all. The same calculation today would require over 4,000 years (if you just stay a second, you can manage it in a lifetime — about 70 years to see everything). So how could someone be bored and not find anything to do in SL?? Just walking around will entertain you for several lifetimes…

That was, however, a different kind of “boredom”, which I also addressed four years ago: I found that it was related with the difficulty of actually finding interesting things, not the lack of interesting things to find. This problem is still unsolved, although I believe that the Destination Guide goes a long way to help people to find what they like in SL — and of course the rich SLogosphere will also help 🙂

Naturally enough, there are other incentives: money, for instance, is a huge incentive for many, and I’m not even going to attempt to write about that. Being popular or famous is also a goal pursued by many. But Second Life is still enjoyable by “social hermits” that just log in on an empty area and spend the whole day programming or building, on their own, and don’t even require admiration of their work — in a sense, they’re just like I was in my teens, writing just for myself, and setting my own goals (“to write something that is not crap”). This strength of Second Life as the ultimate leisure tool is little understood outside SL. If you compare it to any other online social platform, there is none that comes even close to what virtual worlds with user-generated content can offer to their users (Second Life just happens to be the most popular of that type of environment, and the only one, so far, to resist the test of time). Obviously a lot of MMORPGs provide similarly engaging environments — but all goals are set in advance by “others”. One might be happy about following others’ goals — like in the example of ballroom dancing, for example — but for the kind of people that see “leisure” as the “ability to set one’s goals, and pursue them at one’s own pace”, nothing can beat Second Life (or, well, similar virtual worlds with user-generated content).

Now contrast that with people tweeting at leisure and hoping that their tweets get propagated among the biggest number of people — and using that as an incentive to remain a solid Twitter fan. How insignificant that is, compared to the wealth of things to do in Second Life that can give so many different people a sense of self-accomplishment!

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