Recently, I was asked my professional opinion about Second Life, and this is one answer.
When I give periodic talks about Google, I demo Google Gadgets and show the variety of them, including ones that are games such as Space Invaders or Pac Man. Usually I make a joke about how great this is, because now I don’t have to be bored at work anymore, that I’m ranked in the top 100 of Space Invaders, but with another slow semester I’ll probably make the top 10. It usually gets at least a chuckle from the audience. I made the joke in a talk to the university community, and some of my colleagues then claimed I’d told a hundred university employees that I sit around all day playing Space Invaders instead of working, thus making librarians look bad. One colleague actually asked me if I sat in my office all day playing Space Invaders. With as straight a face as I could muster, I told her that no, I usually played Asteroids instead. The irony is I don’t even like computer games.
However, I do play a lot of games with my computer, though rarely at work. I especially like abstract strategy board games and know how to play many different ones, though I also play backgammon and cribbage. A few years ago I was trying to play games with my daughter and yet escape the living hell that is Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders, so I started researching games we could play together with no chance involved. She was a bit young for chess, but I taught her some. However, I’ve also taught her checkers, reversi, go, gomoku, ninuki-renju, mancala, Cathedral, Blokus, connect 4, fox and hounds, nine men’s morris, chinese checkers, alquerque, tafl, surakarta, and probably a few more I’ve forgotton. The last three were so obscure I had to make the boards myself. (By the way, I highly recommend surakarta for small children; it’s a checkers-like game where one captures by moving pieces around big loops on the corner of the board.) I have computer programs that play almost all of these games, and I rely upon Fritz 10 and Hoyle Backgammon as ways to relax of an evening. I find these applications invaluable for playing, practicing, and even learning the games. I taught myself to play chess with the Chessmaster. But I don’t like computer games.
Okay, so what am I talking about and how is it relevant to Second Life or librarianship? For my purposes here, I’m considering computer games to be games that one couldn’t play without a computer, games that were born in a computerized environment. This would include such relatively simple games as Asteroids or Pacman to such complex games as World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs. I don’t like them. I never liked them. I gave away my Atari as a child. I didn’t hang out in arcades. I just found them all boring. However, I love computer chess because the computer program allows me to do better something I like to do in real life. I don’t like World of Warcraft because exploring strange worlds and fighting monsters isn’t something I want to do in real life, and even if it was, this game wouldn’t make me any better at it. Wielding a virtual sword just isn’t the same as wielding a real one, and I should know since I just bought a sword, the primary purpose of which is to give my wife something to look at me and shake her head about.
This is how I at least relate to various kinds of social software. I like the ones that help me do something more efficiently that I was already doing. Recently, I set up a wiki for our reference department because I was trying to capture in one accessible shared place all the information we had in files folders or post it notes or hard drives or email folders that we need to do reference work. We were already keeping this sort of information, just not in a convenient form. Thus, I like this wiki. It makes real life easier, and I consider this the best reason to persuade people to use it.
But so far, I don’t see how Second Life helps me do anything better that I’d ever want to do away from the computer. This may change in the future, and I’m open to development, but so far it bores me. From what I’ve read, virtual shopping and virtual pornography are the most popular things in Second Life. I do almost all of my shopping online, but that’s because I can shop for real things more efficiently. I don’t want to do any virtual shopping. I don’t like to shop at all. I’ve also visited a lot of islands that might be of interest to me, but I couldn’t find anyone there, including the chess island. I wouldn’t go to Second Life to hang out with my friends, because none of my friends visit there.
Thus, while I realize that there may be academic uses to Second Life, so far I’m skeptical of its usefulness. It still seems more like a computer game to me, something that one does mainly for fun and can only do with a computer. It doesn’t seem to build on real life so much as provide a fun alternative to it. It is purposeless, like games and even perhaps like the humanities themselves. I don’t consider this a criticism. Reading a poem is purposeless, yet nonetheless valuable and enjoyable, at least if it’s a good poem. Second Like, like a game, provides an end in itself, but so far it’s just not an end I value. If I found it more utilitarian, I’d have a higher professional opinion of it.