In the Hands of the Enemy

In the Hands of the Enemy
Balancing Your Second Life

Pat Miller | 7 Feb 2006 11:00
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Gamers aren't particularly nice people.

Don't get me wrong. In my experience, most of us tend to be reasonably well-adjusted individuals, perfectly capable of maintaining an engaging conversation or doing each other favors. Some of us are even somewhat pleasant.

Give us a game of some sort - from chess to basketball to Pong - and we will do whatever it takes to win. We will push ourselves harder so we can get better, of course, and this is a good thing. If we really want to win, however, we aren't afraid to do it by any means necessary, whether this means running some particularly aggressive screens on the courts or spawn camping the local newbies. I'm used to it, by now. Most seasoned gamers are. Give us gamers an inch and we'll take a mile.

But to hear Cory Ondrejka, Vice President of Product Development at Linden Lab, tell it, Second Life residents are nothing of the sort. Far from the immature hijinks of text-based online social spaces or the mindless level grinding of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), Second Life provides a virtual, communal creative space for people to play. Or work. Or relax, socialize and have an online martini mixer. Which, you know, doesn't sound so bad right now.

Unfortunately, it's time for work, not play, and so I force myself to concentrate on Mr. Ondrejka, who is in fact sitting right in front of me in a meeting room inside Linden Lab's San Francisco headquarters, and very confidently answering every question I have about their world. I never had the chance to see the notorious excesses of the dot-com offices in person, but I imagine Linden Lab's strikes a healthy compromise between creative excess and corporate austerity. The nice man who showed me around made sure to point out that there were no cubicle walls dividing one employee's desk from another - creativity flows like good feng shui around their office, I suppose. It's reassuring that some people can stay professional with an original Street Fighter II arcade cabinet sitting in the office rec room.

The environment suits Cory, I think, who himself looks like he came of working age in the dot-com era. He stands at just under six feet or so, and he conducts himself in a manner that belies an unabashed enthusiasm tempered by the confidence of experience. Three ear piercings (two in the left ear and one in the right) contrast sharply with ever-so-subtle hints of graying hair. It's rather fitting, somehow.

"Second Life is clearly not a game," Cory tells me. "There's plenty of game-like behavior and plenty of play within it, but really, just about any definition of game you find there's usually some goal component. I think it comes down to the more individual level, whether you consider real life a game." This is true. The word "game" evokes, at the very least, a set of formal rewards and penalties corresponding to each player's actions, whether it's getting $200 for passing go or hearing that infamous ding in World of WarCraft. Second Life, by all accounts, has no such structure. The average player will log on, buy some land, hang out with some friends, maybe build something neat ... and that's it. No mob camping or gold farming here.

Rather, the appeal of Second Life is laid out in the name; it's a second life in cyberspace. Second Life constantly endures comparison to the Metaverse of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, and with good reason; instead of providing a goal-oriented space for people who play a game a la EverQuest, Second Life is simply a place for people to do what they do in their flesh and blood lives. Some people will work, and some people will play.

But if Second Life is not a traditional online role-playing game, neither is it simply a glorified chat room. The real allure of Second Life is the design philosophy that allows users to manipulate and create objects at the level of in-game physics, with, as Cory puts it, "Smart Legos." He is quick to point out that this is no repackaged crafting system found in the average MMOG, where players can moonlight as blacksmiths and the like. "'Atomistic creation' is why Second Life is so flexible, and it's important to differentiate it from crafting, another signal characteristic of MMOGs. A lot of them have this idea that you earn various points and find stuff and can combine stuff in different ways, it's sort of the tech tree approach that MMOGs and RTS [real time strategy games] have converged upon, and generally speaking, those paths are mostly pre-defined," Cory explains excitedly, "In the real world, building tends to be kind of hard, you have to work with atoms and chemistry and physics before we get anything interesting. In a virtual world, you actually can work with atoms. We can basically give you smart Legos to make anything. And that's why you can use the same tools to build a chair, or your house, to games, to guns - anything."

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