Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"How Do I Play This Game?"

A great many newcomers ask me this question, or sometimes, “What’s the point of this?”  The question is a natural one, I suppose.  At first glance, Second Life does appear similar to an on line computer game…except not as graphically lush and probably with a lot more lag.

But aside from the fact that both Second Life and on line games present the user with a “player character” and a world to move that character around in, they are very different, both technically and philosophically.  You need to lose the “gamer mindset” to enjoy, or even understand, Second Life.

First a few words about the technology.  Most of what you see in an on line game was created by the game designers.  They have complete control over the textures used to provide surfaces for objects, and the shape and detail of the objects themselves.  Also, a great deal of the world you see around you is downloaded to your computer in advance, so the scene can be very quickly rendered by your graphics card.  This means that games enjoy rich graphics, professionally done, and you can obtain very high frame rates and smooth movement.  In intervals between play, the game may present you with a pre-made video that (for example) introduces the next chapter or level.  This may be of even higher quality than the game itself, which adds to the overall perceived visual quality of the experience.

Second Life, on the other hand, is mostly user-created.  Except for the avatar mesh itself, and the bare land, sky, and water, everything you see is created by residents just like you.  This allows for a great deal more user participation and input into the whole perceived reality of the virtual world.  On the other hand, it also means that all the objects and textures have to be downloaded to your computer “on the fly”.  On one day, you visit a region that has a city in it.  The next day, the owner decides to tear down the city and build a park.  If the region’s content were downloaded to your hard drive, that sort of flexibility would not be possible.  Because so much of SL has to be sent to your computer over the internet, things are slower to rez (come into focus) than people used to on line games expect.  Frame rates are lower, even with a powerful graphics card.  Also, unlike professional game designers, not all SL creators are adept at choosing textures that are optimized for speed.  The end result is that Second Life “feels” a lot clunkier and more simplistic than many on line games.

While giving its residents so much input into the creation of their shared reality forces these performance limitations on SL, it also is a very unique and profound departure from “games” in a philosophical sense.

Second Life has no “goal”.  You can’t “win” SL.  There are no levels.  There are no quests.  Your avatar does not follow a predetermined path from one adventure to the next.  Games, no matter how many branches and options they have, offer only a limited set of options to the player.  Second Life, however, offers nearly unlimited options.  People, it’s not like a game at all.  There is no structure, no storyline.  Like the objects in the world, your Second Life experience is up to you to create.  It’s like life! (what an amazing concept, huh?)  You decide what your goals are, and then you figure out how to accomplish them with the tools available.

This is the Great Departure that makes SL unique, the brilliant Idea conceived by Philip Rosedale:  Make an empty world, give people the tools to finish creating it, and then step back and let them do as they wish.  While one might liken an ordinary game to a maze, with walls that the players must remain between, SL is like a wide open field – you can go wherever you choose.

A lot of people don’t understand that, and are confused, adrift, and profoundly uncomfortable.  They want and need structure and direction.  For them, there are two options.  They can leave SL and go play an on line game.  Or, they can find a game or a roleplaying group within Second Life to provide them with that comforting social structure and system of rules.

But if there are no goals imposed by the creators of SL, it’s perfectly possible and even desirable to set your own goals.  You might decide to become an explorer, visiting a new region every day.  That should keep you busy for a long time; there are over 30,000 of them.  You might decide to learn how to create hair, or clothes, and become good enough at it that you can sell your creations to others.  You might decide to buy land, and build a beautiful home.  Maybe you’ll get excited by yacht racing, and join one of the sailing clubs.  Perhaps you have a dream of a fantasy world of your own creation, and in building it will attract others to live there and share in your dream.

Most of us have dreams and ambitions that we’ll never have a chance to fulfill in Real Life.  This isn’t a game…it’s your second chance, your Second Life.  Don’t worry about levels and quests…go make your dream come true.

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