The discussion goes well beyond Second Life and moves across the sphere of virtual worlds, games and the social communications that are emerging from these environments.
I do not even think that Second Life represents the future of multiplayer games — it represents one end of a spectrum of player experiences which maximizes player generated content and minimizes the prestructured experiences we associate with most computer games. World of Warcraft represents the other end of that spectrum and so far, that model draws more customers. My own ideal lays perhaps some place in the middle. As such, this becomes a debate not about affordances but about the desirability of professional entertainment versus the pleasures of participatory culture. It also becomes an exercise in mapping what some have described as the pyramid of participation in which the harder it is to create content, the higher the percentage of participants who will chose to consume content someone else has produced. What’s striking to me is not that so many people still prefer to consume professionally generated content (it has always been thus) but what a growing percent of people are willing to consume amateur content and what a smaller but still significant percentage of people are willing to generate and share content they produced themselves. Second Life interests me as a particular model of participatory culture.
Games have at least three advantages other virtual worlds don’t. First, many games, and most social games, involve an entrance into what theorists call the magic circle, an environment whose characteristics include simplified and knowable rules. The magic circle saves the game from having to live up to expectations carried over from the real world.
Second, games are intentionally difficult. If all you knew about golf was that you had to get this ball in that hole, your first thought would be to hop in your cart and drive it over there. But no, you have to knock the ball in, with special sticks. This is just about the stupidest possible way to complete the task, and also the only thing that makes golf interesting. Games create an environment conducive to the acceptance of artificial difficulties.
Finally, and most relevant to visual environments, our ability to ignore information from the visual field when in pursuit of an immediate goal is nothing short of astonishing (viz. the gorilla experiment.) The fact that we could clearly understand spatial layout even in early and poorly rendered 3D environments like Quake has much to do with our willingness to switch from an observational Architectural Digest mode of seeing (Why has this hallway been accessorized with lava?) to a task-oriented Guns and Ammo mode (Ogre! Quad rocket for you!)
In this telling, games are not just special, they are special in a way that relieves designers of the pursuit of maximal realism. There is still a premium on good design and playability, but the magic circle, acceptance of arbitrary difficulties, and goal-directed visual filtering give designers ways to contextualize or bury at least some platform limitations. These are not options available to designers of non-game environments; asking users to accept such worlds as even passable simulacra subjects those environments to withering scrutiny.