Many times before, the idea of a three-dimensional virtual world populated by avatars and virtual objects, shared over the Internet, has inspired software engineers to give it a good try. The technology hasn't been up to it, though. Computers couldn't handle the rendering of a dynamic three-dimensional world fast enough to make movements feel natural; human interface devices didn't offer enough options with sufficient transparency; and most importantly, bandwidth was inadequate to the huge amount of data required. It often seemed technology was ready because games seemed to offer a similarly interactive three-dimensional world; but games generally can get away with huge optimizations in that regards, because they know what will be displayed ahead of time. A truly general-purpose 3D environment is much more challenging to achieve. Thus, each previous attempt teased us with the possibility, then failed because ultimately there was nothing to do there.
SecondLife is promising to finally be the one that takes off. Why is it looking to succeed where others failed? A few interesting ideas make it stand out: the dynamic economy inside the world, more powerful backing behind it, and a heavily user-centric design ensuring that most of the content is created by the users. But the real key is that the technology is finally ready for enough people. Broadband, 3D video cards, faster processors, and more memory make it viable to actually fly over a dynamically rendered 3D environment with fluid movements.
It's not without its share of glitches, and it's very demanding of CPU and bandwidth, but you can do it right now, and for free. (Of course they hope you'll subscribe to get more Lindens, the currency within SecondLife.) And it's very cool. People have built some amazing things in there. The world is breathtakingly huge. If you started exploring it right now even cursorily, you would probably never finish, because more is being built all the time -- not faster than you can explore it yet, but probably soon, soon enough that the head start they have on you would cover the difference.
For all that, though, when I get there, I find myself asking myself, what next? It's probable that there are activities going on out there I'd be interested in -- in a world this size, with this many users, and given that almost anything you can imagine could be implemented with enough object creation and scripting time, almost anything's probably there somewhere. The world is so big, though, it's hard to find anything you might be interested in. Instead, most people fall into socializing as the main activity.
Nothing wrong with that. But it doesn't help me much. I'm already too socially awkward. Being in a slick shiny avatar in a sweeping virtual space doesn't change that; put me in an area with someone I don't know and I have no idea how to start a conversation, unless the area already provides me with some structure. Mostly I wander around just exploring, and my few attempts to interact with someone are generally non-starters.
Clearly what I need to do is find groups interested in activities I'm interested in, and then branch out from there. Assuming that what I want to do is socialize, but is that all? Using SecondLife as a glorified chat room seems so unambitious. But when I think about other things, they all get me into the same conundrum that I have a hard time expressing.
As an inveterate roleplayer, I can't help consider the possibility of treating this like a MUSH. Doubly so as I wander around an elven community populated by an assortment of dragons, miniature blue Shetland pony-pegasi, fae with pixie rainbow butterfly wings, and stately elves toting swords and magic wands, for instance. But to what extent is that roleplaying?
I'm fairly sure the woman I spoke to today is not, in real life, a miniature blue Shetland pony-pegasus. But that doesn't mean she's roleplaying. She might be (and indeed, from what she said, is) just playing herself, as she would be if she could take other shapes -- as she can, in SecondLife. That's fundamentally different from playing a different person, with a different past, personality, motivations, etc. I'm not sure which I want to do, and I'm not entirely sure which other people are doing. In a place this large, there isn't even an answer to that; it's grown too fast for it to have a culture or "netiquette" about things like that yet.
It seems like the answer is turning out to be that people play at varying points along that spectrum depending on where they are, who they're with, what they're doing. Sometimes they're playing themselves in a fancy new body and clothes, and sometimes they're dressed up playing someone entirely different. Those who can afford it can have different costumes and even different bodies for different roles, all wrapped around the same name.
So many possibilities. I just have to figure out what I want to do.