Monday, 13 September 2010

First steps

I had a new experience last night: I accompanied someone during her first steps in Second Life. Sidi is now a resident of SL: the first person whom I've told about it face-to-face in my RL who actually made the leap. We sat side-by-side in her RL office as she created an account and took her first steps in-world.

Sidi started on the new birthing place (I've forgotten the name already, perhaps they are again called Orientation Islands) and quickly moved on to a shopping district, one of the four starting destinations for people leaving the OI. She was rightly disappointed by the poor quality of the goods on display, so I gave her L$1000 and a landmark to Eshi Otawara's new store, where we met. She was delighted by Eshi's clothes, as I expected, and immediately bought and wore a nice red-and-black checked dress (one that I didn't own, it was important to her that we not look alike).

It was fascinating to see how she felt her way into the world — and in particular I was surprised and pleased to see that she understood right away that it was a world not a game, a society not an entertainment. In fairness, it has to be said that she was primed to see it in this way: she and I have been talking about identity and character and interpersonal dynamics for decades (literally) and I've been telling her about SL since I joined it over three years ago.

While her av was in conversation with others, she kept leaning over to ask me "How do I respond to that? What should I say?" Not because she was lost for words, she is an artist after all, but that she couldn't judge the context. "Do I trust this person whom I've just met for the first time? Do I greet him formally or informally? Should I be warm and friendly or keep him at a distance?" All very astute questions.

She's hooked. She described how the feeling of embodiment in her avatar grew as we improved Sidi's appearance in easy stages. Right from the beginning she referred to her avatar as "me," rather than "her" (or even "it") as many newborns do.

I was shocked to see how difficult she found her first hour in-world. There is so much to learn, and so little in the way of assistance with the learning. Sidi had trouble with many of the concepts of virtuality, in particular movement and camera controls. She said several times that she would have given up if I weren't there giving advice and encouragement.

When I joined SL there was a long, intricate and carefully orchestrated tutorial that took at least an hour to work through, but which gave newborns a thorough grounding in the basics of SL. People apparently complained that it took too long, they just wanted to get the cybersex already, so it was scrapped in favour of a small four-screen tutorial dialog that many newborns never even noticed. That too has been scrapped in favour of six freestanding posters (easier to notice) which tell the newbs things that they won't need for several days or at least hours. Every change that the Lindens make to the newborn experience makes it less useful and more confusing. IMHO YMMV.

The advertising for SL apparently gives the impression that anyone can just rez into SL and immediately start having huge balls of fun with no training or preparation. This is simply not true, and people who come in-world expecting that are disappointed and angry. I think we (and by that I mean the Lindens) must face the fact that SL is big and complex, like every MMORPG-like world is, and that new users need to spend time learning its interface, as they do in every MMORPG-like world. And indeed in reality, RL is full of learning curves too. Every city's bus service has its own ticketing machines, for example. Nobody complains that RL is too hard, though. I wonder why not?