The Second Hit is Free

I tried out Second Life yesterday, in honor of the first virtual user group to register in O’Reilly’s user group program (“Rubyists of Second Life” on Kula 3). I was only there a few hours, just long enough to tweak my avatar’s appearance, wander around the first islands, transport to Kula, and explore a bit. If you haven’t been there before, imagine something like a cross between IRC, web surfing, and Zelda.

In real life (they call it “First Life”), I’ve encountered several people who were almost fanatically devoted to the game. I can’t say I understand this, but my impression is that what you get out of the game is directly proportional to what you put into it. I don’t have enough time to do everything I want to do in First Life, so it’s unlikely I’ll invest much in Second Life. But, even on a short visit, I found beautiful things created by the residents. (So far my favorite is a little Zen garden in Caveland on Kula 2.)

Making it free and easy to enter the game was a great idea. It follows the classic addictive strategy of “the first hit is free”. Corralling newbies on a set of orientation islands full of colorful introductory tasks was also a great idea. It’s a chance to walk around looking like a stupid newbie in an environment where no one cares. I found the orientation islands jarring, especially the other newbies who kept coming up to me while I was in the middle of learning a new skill with “hi, where are u from?” But, the atmosphere in the wider world is much calmer.

I ran into a few technical annoyances. At one point as I was playing, my character froze. I waited 5 minutes or so trying various movements and looking through the help files for anything relevant (like, perhaps, a nice help entry along the lines of “Pressing G will freeze your character, so don’t do that.”) Eventually I quit and restarted and was unfrozen when I got back. I also had trouble with the display being choppy and unresponsive. Setting my display preferences down to the lowest settings helped, but I still sometimes vastly overshoot my target when flying or walking because the display doesn’t update until after I’ve gone past. I’m guessing the hard-core residents purchase faster hardware, with more memory, and a faster network connection. (The alpha Linux version of the Second Life client has library problems, so I was on an 3-year-old Mac, instead of my fast Linux desktop.)

Overall, the creative and social aspects of Second Life satisfy two of the most deeply rooted human desires. This fact goes a long way toward explaining the enthusiasm and loyalty they’re gaining and perhaps even the volume of real cash that flows through the system every day.