Death in Second Life

Virtual environments have long been defined by limitations.

Facebook has a restricted design and interface that creates uniformity of content among all users.  Online role-playing games saddle each character with constraints and stunted abilities until they’re able to build up experience and wealth. Twitter has achieved rapid popularity on the strength of its rather severe limitation on use.

Yet in the world of Second Life, limitations are immediately tossed aside. From the start each user navigates the space through flying. A seemingly endless array of islands are instantly accessible through teleportation. Users have an ever-growing selection of objects to customize their appearance and put their stamp on unclaimed property, with countless ways to build elaborate structures using designs  limited only by imagination

All these reasons are how my classmates managed to build an excellent virtual space for learning.

They’re also why I may never set foot in Second Life again.

Today was the final piece in the project I blogged about a couple of months back. With the virtual classroom built, we tested it as the site of our actual Public Opinion and New Media course. Check out the tutorial YouTube video we made if you’re curious as to how it all came together in the end.

By all accounts, the test worked well. While virtual class was far less engaging than the real thing, it sure beat the  message boards that substitute for discussion in online courses. The building looks great. Everything is functional. I managed to go to school and learn in my pajamas.

But there has to be an easier way.

The seemingly limitless options, so much fun to play with at first, proved maddening when it came time to get things done. Without a sense of law, a respected ethical code or even reliable rules of physics, making productive use of time in Second Life resembled chasing an ever-moving target. Designs were adopted and scrapped. Debates grew heated. Plans abandoned. The workflow grossly inefficient.

And then there were those hostile users trying to sabotage the construction effort.

I don’t in any way blame my classmates for these setbacks. I blame a program that scoffs at constraints and in doing so undermines productivity.

The best tools on the web save us time with an interface and design built to accomplish specific tasks. They’re limited in their options, yes, but they enable us to do what needs to get done as quickly and professionally as possible. Amid the endless choices of the online age, these sorts of programs become more valuable, offering a little bit of security and reliability to make sense of all the clutter.

Second Life does not have these attributes, and its popularity could wane as specialty programs make it easier to accomplish particular goals online. The next time a group of students needs to build a virtual classroom, several programs will have an interface designed specifically with that in mind, minus the chaos that ultimately rules a virtual world without limits.

    • andersj
    • October 27th, 2009

    Your team’s work in Second Life is really awesome, so congratulations on that! You make some good observations in this essay about your experiences. Second Life and other VR programs are still experiencing growing pains. They are early-stage tools mostly used by highly motivated experimenters and builders. The interface is key. Developments will come and VR worlds will become important as the UI evolves – same as we are seeing with the adoption of gestural computing at so many levels. Did you read about iPhone Moms? They are sharing their phones with 1- and 2-year-olds, and app builders are targeting children that age and older with games. It’s all about interface.

  1. Thanks for the compliments on our Second Life classroom! We are happy with it for the most part and I wouldn’t mind having another class session there if meeting face-to-face wasn’t feasible.

    Second Life has been around for several years now, and by this point I would have thought it could better develop its interface. The problem in my opinion is the program trying to be all things to all people. The iPhone apps that are catching on with Moms and their children have a simple design and are made for particular tasks. That approach I feel works better for virtual worlds rather than one where everything is up for grabs.

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