Second Life is hard to use. Everybody knows it. I've logged something like 20 hours on SL in the past week and a half, and I'm still a consummate klutz. SL needs to be easier to use -- but not too easy, because if it was easy, it would undercut the nature of the world and remove one of its most appealing qualities.
Yesterday I met up with John Jainschigg, who works for the programmers' magazine Dr. Dobb's Journal. He and his colleague Brad Russell showed me some of what DDJ is doing in Second Life. John also showed me some tricks for getting around and looking around in SL, including one trick involving holding down the control, alt, and shift keys while simultaneously using the mouse.
Which brings me to the point of this blog post: There is no reason why anyone, under any circumstances, should have to hold down the control, alt, and shift keys while simultaneously mousing around. It's just too much to ask of any human being.
Second Life is just plain hard to use. Everybody who knows anything about Second Life knows that. Even people who love Second Life are frank about it. Journalist Wagner James Au (no relation to Yrs Trly) writes: "For anyone who is not a committed techie, early adopter, hardcore gamer, someone with very specific goals, or entering with an experienced guide, the current Second Life interface is intimidating and obscure, and almost perverse in its learning curve, easily two hours at minimum; much, much more for any real proficiency."
To which I respond: Two hours? Au is a smarter fellow than I; I think I've spent almost 25 hours in SL over the past week and a half and I'm still a complete spaz.
The other major usability problem SL has is that it's hard to find things. When you first arrive in the world, you fumble around until you find the Search function. Click on the "most popular places" tab and you're confronted with a list of what appear to be about a billion sex clubs and casinos.
There are many players at Second Life -- called "residents" in the game culture -- who make a point of greeting newcomers and showing them the ropes. Tateru Nino and Dirjha Summers, who I've mentioned frequently in these posts, are two. And, if your Google-fu is mighty, you can find many Web sites and blogs that will guide you as to what's going on in SL. (Some of my favorites: Baedeker, Au's New World Notes, the Official Linden Blog, and Second Life Insider.)
But, still, it's confusing.
SL has its own language. Residents talk about rezzing, sims and builds, about places that are laggy, about RL, about avies and alts.
Second Life provides orientation areas when you first log into the world, where you can get instruction and practice in using the world. But they're not as helpful as they could be. Indeed, I was in the orientation area a half-hour before I even realized I was in an orientation area. How's that for confusing -- I mean, an essential part of good training is that the student should actually be aware that he's being trained....
Clearly, SL needs to be easier to use. Much easier. And there needs to be some kind of beginners' guide to places to go and things to do. Something that you're handed as soon as you arrive in the world.
But Second Life shouldn't be too easy to use, and it shouldn't be too easy to find things.
I take a small pride in knowing that control-alt-shift-mouse trick, the way people are proud of catching a big fish or making a solid drive in golf. Clay Shirky, faculty at the interactive telecommunication program at New York University, writes, in an essay about virtual worlds and online role-playing games: "If all you knew about golf was that you had to get this ball in that hole, your first thought would be to hop in your cart and drive it over there. But no, you have to knock the ball in, with special sticks. This is just about the stupidest possible way to complete the task, and also the only thing that makes golf interesting. Games create an environment conducive to the acceptance of artificial difficulties."
(By the way, I'm quoting Clay out of context. Grossly. His essay is an argument why Second Life, and worlds like it, will never be anything more than a niche activity, practiced by only a few people. It'll never be mainstream. I don't agree, but it's a great essay. Go read it.)
One of the points of Steven Johnson's excellent book Everything Bad Is Good For You is that in contemporary computer games, like Grand Theft Auto, figuring out how to play the game is part of the game. When we were children, we picked up a board game like Monopoly, learned the rules, and then started playing, but in a video game, you start out not knowing how the game works and what you're supposed to do, and figuring out how that stuff works is part of the play.
And that's why Second Life shouldn't be too easy. Because if it were, it would cut down on the fun of figuring it all out, learning from other, more experienced players, and sharing what you know when you get more experienced.
There's a lot more to Second Life than that. There's socializing with other players, building things, enjoying the things that other people have built and created, and doing business online. But learning is essential to the enjoyment of the world.
P.S. "Rezzing" means to build something, or make it appear in SL. "Sims" are simulations, or areas of Second life that are fixed up to look like something -- a museum, a house, ancient Rome. I'm pretty sure that a "build" is pretty close in meaning to a "sim" -- it's a reference to what's been built in a sim, rather than the location. A sim that's "laggy" means it's slow, generally because it's popular and the servers are struggling to keep up. "Avies," are "avatars," your alter ego in Second Life -- mine's Ziggy Figaro, IM me and say howdy if you're in-game. And I'm pretty sure that "alts" are alternative avatars: each individual, human user can have multiple avatars.