Editorial: Second Life Still Has Way, WAY Too Steep a Learning Curve for New Users—What Can Be Done to Fix the Problem?

This week, I did something that I have not done in years: introduce a friend to Second Life.

This friend (who shall remain nameless) was not new to social VR and virtual worlds. He explores countless metaverse platforms and navigates them with ease, so he is not your usual, casual newbie. And, of course, I have over 14 years of experience in Second Life, and I have visited and written about over 160 different social VR platforms and virtual worlds over the past four years, so I am no spring chicken either. In short, we are both experienced, übergeeky metaverse citizens!

My friend was curious to explore BURN2, the virtual Burning Man festival in Second Life, and used the following instructions to get started, download and install the standard Second Life viewer, and select a starter avatar. In fact, he was up and running so quickly, that when I met up with him, dressed as 1970s man (one of the most recent lineup of starter avatars), transistor radio in hand and dancing away at one of the BURN2 stages, I thought for sure that it would take no time at all to upgrade his avatar from the classic, system options to a fully mesh version.

How wrong I was.

And the experience was a real eye-opener to me, and illustrates what is still one of the biggest problems in Second Life: setting up a mesh avatar is an exercise fraught with confusion and frustration, and it’s just too steep a learning curve for people (even metaverse experts!).

Our first problem was that I was trying to walk him through the process, using voice chat instead of text chat because that is what my friend was most used to (voice chat is standard on most social VR platforms). However, we ran into problems because I was using Firestorm (as most experienced Second Life users do), and he was using the standard SL viewer. So, I asked him to download and install the Firestorm viewer so that I could walk him through everything step-by-step, but for some reason he could not get his microphone to work with the Firestorm viewer (it worked with the SL viewer). Then, I downloaded and installed the standard SL viewer, but by then we decided that I would talk him through the process via cellphone.

All told, from beginning to end, it took us about an hour to walk him through the following process:

  1. Teleporting to the London City sim, and picking up the Altamura Robert dollarbie mesh body and a set of clothing for it from the Freebie Warehouse there;
  2. Unpacking and setting up the Robert head and body, and explaining how the various options on the HUD worked;
  3. Unpacking and wearing a starter wardrobe, showing him how to remove the parts of his body under the clothing;
  4. Teleporting to Tuty’s to pick up their free male Bento animation override, and explaining how AOs worked.
My avatar, Vanity Fair (left), at the end of our hour-long odyssey to get my friend (right) set up with the Altamura Robert body and a starter outfit. It was an eye-opening experience! (He took this picture. And I *still* didn’t have time to explain how you can control the lighting, so he could get a brighter shot!)

I am just so used to using SL that I breezily expected that it would take us 15-30 minutes, tops. WRONG! And it made me realize just how hard it can be to get up to speed in Second Life, especially if you want to set up a mesh avatar for the first time.

Over the 18 years of its history, content creators have built empires by extending and jerry-rigging the original, system avatar in ways that are simply not that easy to learn. Newbies are not familiar with all the terminology we casually toss around (sims, Bento, HUDs, AOs, alphas, etc.), and I learned that just because you’re completely familiar with the newer social VR platforms, that knowledge does not necessarily translate to older virtual worlds like Second Life! For example, I have heard, time and again, from people who are so used to being able to control their avatars using their VR headset and hand controllers how strange it is to have to use prerecorded animation overrides! These newer users look at what SL has to offer and are not nearly as impressed by how far Second Life has come over the past 18 years.

Sometimes, it is highly instructive to step out of our preconceived notions of how things work, and helping out my friend this week has made me realize that there’s still way, waaay too steep a learning curve for Second Life. The question is: what is to be done?

I do know that Linden Lab has been throwing themselves at this problem for years (they even introduced a line of mesh starter avatars, which were incompatible with all the major brands of mesh bodies, and were later removed from service). And, of course, the creators of mesh heads and bodies were only too happy to fill the void, providing dozens (perhaps even hundreds) of different brands which may or may not play well together—to say nothing of the headache of shopping for mesh clothing to fit these bodies! I now have a renewed appreciation of just how daunting a task that can be for a new user, and why so many newbies throw up their hands and walk away from SL in disgust and frustration, never to return.

And I must confess that I have no easy answers. Most brands of mesh heads and bodies do provide free demos, and extensive online help, even videos (and of course, there are hundreds of YouTube videos to help walk people through the entire process of setting up a mesh avatar for the first time). And there are countless places scattered across the grid, to help newbies get their bearings and pick up some freebies along the way to help them get started without spending any money (I mention many of them in this blogpost, which I endeavour to keep as up-to-date as possible).

Perhaps there is no solution. Perhaps it’s just a part of “leveling up” in Second Life that you need to work your own way through this process? I don’t know. I’m quite sure the team at Linden Lab discuss this often amongst themselves, too. Is there even such a thing as a good, non-brand-specific, tutorial for people who want to upgrade to 100% mesh?

If any of you reading this have any insight or ideas, I’d love to hear it! Please feel free to leave a comment below, thanks!