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!

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

  1. It’s definitely a leveling up process, and it’s not necessary if a person is satisfied with a starter av which is adequate for getting to know SL. I have put so much time and effort into my av’s that I would feel cheated if a noob could show up and create an av like mine in ten minutes. Why would anybody expect that? Join some groups, ask for help with things like BOM; there are always people who will help.

  2. OK, Ryan, I’ve been using Second Life for 14 years now and never had a mesh body and am quite happy with what I have!

    Let me suggest that you have fallen into the trap of believing that high tech, high resolution, etc. is required to have an excellent immersive experience and build wonderful relationships with new friends around the world.

    You could also examine how frustrating it is to build things using prims, and extol the virtues of Blender, which anyone can master in … hmm, let’s see, 12 years? maybe? 5 times I got books and by then Blender had upgraded and the book didn’t match. I finally gave up on that. (And I have 55 years computer experience!)

    Or maybe we all need 3-D googles for “true immersion”?

    It’s all delusional. “South Park” is a beloved cartoon and it has lollipop headed flat figures. “Hawaii” by Michener has not a single picture, just black marks on white pages — the resolution is terrible!

    My point is that there is always a learning curve, but then our head “gets it” and whatever it is becomes ‘real’, whether it’s high-rez goggle-enabled 3D, or black marks on paper. Some things take longer to learn than others is all.

    For that matter, sitting around a campfile telling stories is an excellent activity and the visual resolution is zero.

    Life, happiness, and “immersion” are all in the head. I spent 15 years learning to “read text” and when i open ‘Hawaii” I might as well BE there.

    Second Life, I estimate from trying to get people engaged, takes about 10-15 contact hours before it stops being a TV screen one is watching, and you simply find yourself ‘there’. Evidence– when the floor drops out from under you in SL, you jerk and grab hold of something in Real Life. Then you’re ‘immersed’.

    So, meh to mesh. Mesh is not critical to Second Life.
    Meh to fancy AO’s and high-rez — South Park works fine for somethings.

    I do wish that voice was taken seriously and getting voice to work was a problem with every course and student i ever had in Second Life. It’s always someone else’s problem. I think either cell phones or Discord for voice is needed.

    But mesh isn’t needed. We don’t need to envy and try to reproduce every aspect of every world. SL building stuff is hard, but buying stuff is fantastically easy and the store has a million items to furnish your home and environment, for under $10, which most worlds do NOT have.

    Eat the meat, spit out the bones. Second Life is great if you adapt to it and get on with building places, relationships, new friends, and entire societies.

  3. Excellent article. *And* your friend was tech-literate! Trying to help a non-gamer, non-VW/VR user into Second Life would be much, much harder — and their stress can reach near-panic levels. You’re right about how users take SL’s field jargon for granted. One extremely confused newbie once said to me: ‘You say to ask questions. I don’t even know what questions to ask, because I don’t know what I don’t know.’ LL needs to read your article, and do a deep dive into how to help newcomers. What is holding SL up, and keeping it going, is a dwindling army of old-timers. Most newcomers are just too intimidated to stay.

    1. Thank you! Yes, as I said, trying to help my friend out was a REAL eye-opener for me.

  4. I totally agree. As you say “content creators have built empires by extending and jerry-rigging the original, system avatar in ways that are simply not that easy to learn”.
    We should remember how SL has been designed and how customizing your avatar was in the early years. Although it was not awesome, you had a native interface that allowed you to create your hair style *inwolrd* and customize your skin, makeup, and also your clothing.
    Content creators then began to create addons: prim wigs to replace the system avatar’s hair, then attachments to make the clothing more 3D, and eventually the current mesh clothing and body addons,

    The problem is… these addons are pretty, but they are a sort of workaround, not what SL was designed for. You don’t have a native interface for them. Modern virtual worlds have a preview list, you click a preview you are set. In SL, instead, you have to rummage around your inventory, structured like a file manager, unpack boxes like zip files (but often you have also to “rez” the box first),… I think you know what I mean. Then, even if you find the matching components, you have parts of your avatar to hide, but that isn’t built in. So new workarounds were introduced: at first you had invisiprims, then alpha layers to add, eventually with mesh bodies you had to tinker with the alpha slices in your body HUD. Therefore another workaround an auto-alpha script, but you can make only so many alpha slices, while outfits can have any design. Moreover, when you switch to a different saved outfit, the script sometimes fails (and in no-script areas it doesn’t work at all, same with the various HUDs). Now, with BOM, we are back to the alpha layer (to me it’s simpler, as I just have to add it, and for creators it is more versatile, but your mileage may vary).

    To be fair, working at “low level” gives you a higher degree of freedom in what you can do. E.g. you can attach an accessory to any attachment point. So I don’t really want this to be removed. On the other hand, it’s clear that this system and these addons make SL excitedly complicated to customize your avatar, compared to other virtual worlds.

    However, I think a new a native interface could be designed, on top of the current system.
    For example, Linden Lab could design a special-box, in which content creators put their alternative clothing “sizes” inside, using standard naming. Then the box object data, other than the creator, description, etc, would be extended to also include the category (pants, shoes, hats…) and the UUID of a preview. These special-boxes would be placed automatically in dedicated folders. This would happen under the hood.
    From the user perspective, the Viewer then would list these special-boxes with a native visual interface. You would be able to pick a category (e.g. skirts) and see a list of previews (you won’t have to remind what is what or sort your inventory anymore). As you click a preview, under the hood the Viewer would look at the corresponding special-box content, pick up the matching size for your avatar automatically and put it on.
    Then objects could be extended to include an UUID of the alpha layer.
    So when you click on the skirt preview, you wear the matching size and the alpha layer is applied automatically.

    This would make customizing your avatar in SL as simple as clicking a preview, while keeping the compatibility with the old system. It’s just an example, but IMHO I think something like this is doable.

  5. Second Life has always had a steep learning curve. it was much easier before mesh when we all had the same basic body and all clothes fit all avitars. It IS harder now with all the mesh options, but it is not just that. I work as a volunteer at an inworld location called The Shelter. It is an independent newbie friendly location that is there to help new users git familiar with SL and also just to hang out. What I have noticed over the years is a lot of newbies when they first rez in SL on Help Island, do not take the time to use the tutorials located there, They just port out and……..well you get it. I gathered this info from hearing all the newbies who have showed up at The Shelter on their 1st day.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Steven! I think all of us are addicted to instant gratification, which is part of the problem!

  6. Hi! I think it is very true that there is a really tough learning curve getting to where you feel like you are free to go role play, dance at a club, run a motorboat or build your own house. Most people aren’t technical enough or determined enough to get there, and it’s a real shame. I’ve been in SL for 14 years, and I have pursued many technical skills that have enhanced my ability to develop my avatar’s look, my environment, and my Lindens, but these things came over time. If it had been me showing a newby friend the wonders of SL, I would probably not have been immediately concerned with their look. It would be more about learning to teleport, taking them to some awesome places, teaching them to search for interesting places to visit on their own, finding stores for things they need, sitting on things, using animations, chatting and saving your chats, turning your sound on and off, working on some of the prefs, learning about L$’s, and learning how to CAM! (Sooo important to expanding your field of view and thus your entire experience. I still run into people who don’t know how to cam. If they only knew how their world would open up if they learned!), how to find some land to live on, just all kinds of basics. Of course your look is important too. Maybe your IO first so you don’t look like a dork when you walk, but developing your look can come later. That’s a never ending project! There are so many things to learn! How to move furniture, how to build or modify things, maybe eventually to create a product and sell it, or maybe learn to sell or manage land, if you are drawn to it, and on and on it goes. Now I’m rambling…

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