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What’s Wrong with Second Life?

2010 January 7

A recent article on PC Pro discusses the return of journalist Barry Collins to Second Life after a three-year hiatus.  It is a remarkably clear and frank discussion of how the virtual world has been changing.  The quite enthusiastically “adult” areas of the game have been relocated to their own virtual continent, effectively segregating them from the rest of the game world.  And as a result, it seems, the rest of the game world is quite empty, which Collins seems to view as a negative.

So what is wrong with Second Life?  Have businesses stopped taking interest?  Companies are still moving into Second Life, although certainly not as readily as they did a few years ago.  Based on my own conference experience, education seems to be increasingly interested in Second Life, and my own research on the topic has just begun.

I think, perhaps, the confusion and uneasy feeling comes from a simple fact: the hype is gone.  No one is touting Second Life as “the next best thing” or “an Internet revolution.”  Instead, it is simply another technology that could be used for a variety of purposes.  The problem is identifying just what those purposes should be; as Collins reveals, if you don’t have your own personal goals for Second Life, it’s pretty damn boring.

Given that, why is it still gaining momentum in education and perhaps in business?  Also simple – it’s easy.  With Second Life, relatively unskilled (from a technical perspective) educators can, with little or no formal training, create an immersive learning environment, custom-designed to their needs.  Before Second Life, the only way to do this would be to construct such an environment physically.  Stephanie Henderson-Begg’s presentation at E-Learn comes to mind when considering this point – if you want to teach how to operate a chemistry lab, you can either procure chemicals, test tubes, lab coats and other expensive equipment and run a handful of people through a physical class, or you can click and drag to build a persistent, near-zero-cost-per-student virtual lab.  The advantage is obvious.

So in conclusion, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Second Life.  Instead, the problem is that people believe hype is necessary for a technology to flourish, and that simply isn’t the case.  The continuing value of Second Life is obvious when we treat the technology as it should be treated – as a tool to be used when it is needed, not as a cure-all for the Internet.

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