Originally published in Kotaku
"I tried it out, but it just seemed like The Sims Online in 3D, all these blinged-out club rats just standing around chatting. Like, WTF?"
That's pretty much the reaction I get from most gamers on Second Life, the user-created online world in which I've been an "embedded journalist" for the last three years. I can't blame them. Though it's been featured at E3 and sometimes gets blurbed by the gaming press as an MMORPG, SL is really a world that's architected to be all things to all people. Start a free account, and you're liable to wind up in the Welcome Area with a few exiles from TSO and There looking for a new place to socialize and, yes, cyber on poseballs -- but just as easily, academics checking out the schizophrenic hallucination simulator , or government contractors with US Homeland Security , or even the odd Japanese sex worker who wants to virtually recreate Hiroshima after the nuke hit. Absent specific goals or mobs to kick the crap out of, you're liable to fly around aimlessly before deciding that it's just a weird cross between a 3D development platform and a chat program, AutoCAD meets the Sims.
Which it sort of is, but then, also not. It's definitely not for every gamer, but for those willing to recalibrate their expectations of what an online world is supposed to be-- or just want a break from leveling in WoW-- here's some of the SL tips I usually give to gamers still stuck at WTF.
Avoid the Popular Places
Avoid the Popular Places
This might sound counter-intuitive, but like Yogi Berra used to say, “No one goes to that restaurant anymore, it’s too crowded!” Popular Places (a category under SL’s Find command) is a raw data listing of sites based on nothing more than foot traffic. And much like a gleefully deranged amalgam of Vegas, Miami, and Amsterdam, what brings customers is the promise of gambling, dancing, and naked fun. None of this is a bad thing, of course, but it does mean Popular Places tend to be the haven of casual and social gamers, and scarce with hardcore gamers.
Plus if your Mom is into SL, she’s probably hanging out in one of these Popular Places right now, and you don’t really want to see what kind of animated moves she’s busting in there. Seriously.
Find the Sandboxes
If you insist on thinking of Second Life as a game, then think of it as a game the same way playing with Lego is. This comes out most clearly in the Sandboxes, regions in Second Life that have been reserved for temporary free-form, no-cost building. Generally the area is wiped of all objects created within it every 24 hours. For my money, these are consistently the coolest areas in SL, a kind of massively multiplayer building blocks land. Unsurprisingly, this is where a lot of gamers hang out, whether it's to make giant dreadnought starships, or build tributes to Counterstrike or Mario, or play a round of "Bearhammer".
To reach the sandboxes: Click "Map", then in the "Find Region" slot, type in "Sandbox" or "Combat" (where p v. p battles are permitted along with building), then Teleport.
Befriend a Furry Today!
Once the bane of gamer-dominated sites like Something Awful, the furry subculture has found its place in SL. Come across a game or an amazing game-like area, and there’s maybe a 50-50 chance it's the proud work of someone with a large bushy tail. Furries took Taco, for example, and converted the entire island into a cel-shaded cartoon land of wonder; furries not only created the Lusk community, but are building a whole software development kit for making puzzles. Unsurprisingly, many are also members of the game industry. Tiger Crossing, creator of many popular SL games, works on those titles as a break from his day job: working on Elder Scrolls: Oblivion.
Visiting Taco or Lusk: Click Map, then in "Find Region", type "Taco" or "Lusk", then Teleport. Contact Arito Cotton for Lusk's SDK.
Get with a Group
With such a large community of Residents (over 160,000 now) and a high concurrency (nearly 6000 online at peak), one of the best ways for gamers to find their way is join a Group of like-minded folks to share resources, tips, and communicate live in group IM messages. There's hundreds of groups for every conceivable interest, a lot of which are game related. SL has become a kind of 3D forum for gamers who want to meet up outside their favorite titles. The famed girl gamer PMS clan recently started a chapter in SL, while the popular Penny Arcade site has a group nearly a hundred strong. Gamers looking to try their hand at SL development should check out the Game Developer Association, while WoW fans can join World of Warcraft Players.
Speaking of which, one of those famous WoW players out there, Internet guru Joi Ito, is planning to buy and island in SL, and devote to activities associated with his WoW clan and other activities. Go here to get involved.
To join a group. Click Find, the Groups, then enter the title of the group in the search slot. The groups listed above are all open to the public.
The games are in there...
That Second Life isn’t a game doesn’t mean the world isn’t rife with games— there are dozens, of every variety and genre, so much so that there’s a wiki devoted to them. Even better, the 2006 Game Development Contest launched on the 20th, and it’s a showcase of eight games, including a mini-MMORPG, an RTS, and an in-world Magic-style card game. (Full disclosure: when still a staffer, I helped Linden Lab put this contest together.) At its best, SL is a platform for games, and gamers looking for a world where they bring just as much to a game as is expected of them.