Since Salvo 4 is finally wrapping up (you can read a few of the articles here), it seems a good time to post my article from Salvo 3, focusing on the social impact of virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft. It's much too long to include in the post itself, so click here for a text-only version, or here for the full-color PDF (this is a large file). I'd love to hear your comments, whether you've tried anything like Second Life or not. Here's an excerpt:
One additional note: Since this was published in August (and written in May), it is likely that some of the facts and figures are out of date (e.g. subscription totals), but hopefully my overall impressions and conclusions remain valid.
The truth is that, more often than not, I find Second Life depressing. Perhaps it’s just my introverted personality (if only I could change that with a click of the mouse; I must have missed that section of the character creation page), but most people I meet here are wandering aimlessly, shopping, or sitting quietly in one of the many casinos that pay you to occupy their chairs. Regardless of when I log on, the world map always looks the same: a mostly abandoned landscape, speckled with pockets of a dozen people or so. Teleporting to one of these gatherings, I usually find everyone "dancing" to pre-programmed moves—another activity for which you can earn a small fee—not saying a word to each other. The picture of a meaningless existence? Well-to-do adults pole dancing in an empty bar for 25 cents an hour.
In our culture, we tend to think freedom is the highest good, but the empty cities of Second Life suggest otherwise. It’s not freedom we crave, but rather purpose. More even than the absence of physical sensation, Second Life proves surprisingly dull because there’s no goal—nothing needs to be done, so the freedom offered is meaningless. Game-focused MMOs, such as World of Warcraft, are better populated, in part because they have more constraints. Completing quests and winning battles provide a semblance of accomplishment. Compared to our world of dead-end jobs and unending housework, the possibility of being a hero, even if only in some artificial reality, can be enchanting. Sure, it may just be the illusion of meaning—the world is no better off afterwards than it was when you started; indeed, the very same quests await the next player—but it can be surprisingly addictive.