Sunday, November 13, 2005

Arbitrary Limitations in Second Life

As an artifical world Second Life is theoretically unrestricted by the physical limitations of the real world. In practice users interact with Second Life through the metaphor of physical space as avatars in roughly human form. So Second Life includes limitations that meet our expectations and define how we interact with the world. However, it also includes limitations that can seem arbitrary.

The virtual space of Second Life consists of a contiguous terrain surface, it has an orientation due to gravity, and it contains solid objects that support avatars. These analogs to the real world make it easy for us to engage in Second Life. Up and down are defined in the familiar way; things fall down (and float up). There is unimpeded sky above our virtual heads, although there could just as easily be another surface with avatars standing on it looking "up" at us. Restrictions are an inherent result of the consistent definitions that make a useful interface, even when that interface is an entire world. Without them we could find ourselves in an Escheresque landscape impossible to navigate.

But Second Life isn't entirely enslaved to the rules of natural physics. It takes advantage of its artificial nature to give us some fantastic freedoms. The most noticable difference from reality might be the ability of avatars to fly. In the real world we don't walk through a maze of city blocks or wait for elevators because we want to; we do it because gravity sticks us to the earth like glue. In Second Life we tap a key and zoom over obstacles or up to the tenth floor effortlessly. It's a measure of the value of this freedom that although land owners can turn off the ability to fly on their parcels (once you have landed), practically no one does so. Another useful break with reality is the ability to place objects anywhere without support. If you want a platform in the sky, you can just place one there. You don't need a web of iron struts like the Eiffel tower (or a degree in structural engineering, or an elevator). As one more small example, avatars never drown. There is no need for scuba equipment in Second Life. ("You still think that's air you're breathing?")

On the other hand, Second Life imposes limitations for reasons that sometimes are not clear. Probably the most controversial check on virtual freedom is the inability to teleport directly from one location to another at will, usually called point-to-point teleporting. Instead avatars must teleport to telehubs spread throughout the world, and then fly to their destination, sometimes quite far away. This can be a tedious and unreliable process, as flying is impeded by lag, obtrusive buildings, restricted parcels and hostile user security scripts. This restriction seems odd on the face of it because point-to-point teleporting does exist; getting to a telehub is an example, as is logging in to one's home location, and one user can invite another user to teleport to his location directly. But it seems especially arbitrary because previously users could teleport anywhere in Second Life by clicking on the map. They simply paid a small fee proportional to the distance. At some point Linden Lab removed this ability and replaced it with the telehub system. So this is a limitation that strikes some people not only as arbitrary, but even somewhat capricious, in that it took away a commonly used option that wasn't causing any obvious problems. Second Life staff have said that the goal was to foster communities around telehubs, but unfortunately what has developed around the telehubs are malls and advertising. Telehubs have become the equivelant of the ads one has to click through when following a link on a web site. In this case, although the restriction was not genuinely arbitrary from Linden Lab's point of view, the effect is when seen from the user's point of view. It is ironic that so many fantasize about teleportation in the real world, but in this virtual world it has been deliberately hobbled.

A more subtle limitation is daylight, or the lack thereof. Second Life has a day and night cycle that takes four hours to complete. This means that light in this digitally rendered world is, to some extent, a limited resource. The user can actually force the sun to rise or place it at any point in the sky through options on the Debug menu. But as soon as she's done so, the sun instantly begins to set again. The result is that many users force the sun to rise as soon as they enter Second Life and then periodically push it back into the sky as they work, play or travel. Unlimited daylight is another example of a feature which exists in the game but is arbitrarily restricted. Not only can any user force the sun to rise repeatedly, but owners of private islands can permanently set the time of day on their land.

There are doubtless causes if not rationales for all the seemingly arbitrary limitations in Second Life. Some of them are the result of attempted social engineering by the world's designers, while others may be unintended consequences that the developers haven't had a chance to address. But overall it suggests that Linden Lab has not yet achieved the promise of an artifically created virtual world in which anything desirable is also possible.