Interesting question… What indeed is it about SL that swallows up the hours, fills our time and keeps us so absorbed, even sometimes to the extent that other – more familiar – pursuits are pushed to the background?
On the face of it, it is quite surprising that a niche platform, with a pretty insignificant user base in global terms, run by a smallish company can command such loyal support and occupy so much of its users’ time and energy – and I think a lot of that boils down to the old chestnut that SL is not a game, but a virtual word.
Even the most casual observer has to to admit that Sl is far greater than the sum of its parts – if it was just about dressing up avatars, with a bit of social networking thrown in, then SL certainly wouldn’t exert the hold that it does over its adherents and we’d soon tire of what it had to offer, and that – to me – is very much the failing of so many games. Unlike SL, games tend to be very limited in their scope – even the most open-ended, organic representatives of the genre tend to have fixed goals, achievable in specific ways and a clear beginning, middle and end. Once you’ve fulfilled the criteria for success, there’s very little else to do, other that wait for the next expansion pack or mod to come out so that you can do the same thing all over again, only with different trees. Games also tend to have pretty rigid rules and whilst there are some that encourage creativity, you’re still working within the constraints of the overall game plan. You can’t write your own rules and there’s no such thing as an open-ended, yet completely satisfying conclusion.
The same applies to the whole gaming cadre to some degree… shoot ’em ups; adventure; driving; platform; community-building and skill games – and whilst it’s true that some provide you with a framework upon which you can exercise a degree of creativity, few – if any – give you the freedom to tear down the framework and do it your own way.
Even the most extensive games tend to be set within pretty tight and constrained environments, systems and processes. However, SL is subtly different – whereas games have a definable and finite span and constraints, SL isn’t limited to the picture on the front of the box, and – although the principle of SL is pretty well defined: a 3D social media platform with user-created content – both the scope and the environment within which that premise is explored take it far beyond the constraints that a traditional game would impose. In so many ways, SL truly is bigger on the inside.
It is this characteristic of SL that defines it in terms of being a virtual world – and similarly, justifies the name Second Life – to begin with, we have the element of unrestrained choice. Although we may start with a rudimentary avatar that looks the same as those around us, we choose how we wish to look, act and interact with others, and within a short space of time we have carved out our own unique look and niche. We have the choice about how much about ourselves we reveal to our peers and strangers – indeed, we can even make it all up, putting across a completely fake, but nonetheless valid persona when inworld.
The opportunities and choices we face whilst inworld are incredibly varied and diverse, just as in RL, and whilst we might argue that it’s possible to customise avatars, quests and the environment within some games, it’s unlikely that we’d find anything quite so versatile and accommodating as SL. Again, like the real world, the more we explore, the more we experience, and the more we want to do, the more the world expands to meet those ever-changing priorities and needs.
I’m not saying that SL is not without some boundaries and constraints, however neither is RL – but those boundaries are far less restrictive than in other virtual environments and far more flexible than in any game I know.
So, what on earth do I do in SL? Whatever I want to! And the more I do, the bigger and better it gets!
It’s knowing that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my reggae bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
Pat Sandy – Gentle On My Mind