How Second Life's "Broadly Uncanny" Avatars Hurt New User Retention (Comment of the Week)

Above: Uncanny Valley Luke Skywalker in Disney's big budget Mandalorian series

Lots of interesting reader discussion to last week's post about how ultra-realistic mesh avatars haven't helped Second Life user growth. Veteran SLer  0xC0FFEA (a host of Reddit's largest Second Life-themed subreddit) delves deeper into this problem, and relates it to the Uncanny Valley problem that impacts even big budget Hollywood movies with digital characters based on real life actors:

A socially acceptable avatar (Maitreya, LeLutka, Doux and a dress) costs $40 USD on top of learning how all the systems work.
That's the price of a full game, with a tutorial, progression systems, and all the stuff you need.

People only do that if they manage to "get" Second Life in the few short initial sessions. "Getting" Second Life almost exclusively means finding something to do that isn't randomly roaming SL's wastelands or getting banned from clubs for being under 30 days old.

What could possible motivate people to invest the required time and energy, if only there was something people did in world that was unique to SL and required a good avatar, I guess we will never know.

Those who don't get it, likely find the avatars uncanny and weird, and coupled with "where is everyone" and "why am I here", rightly don't see any reason to log back in.

SL avatars are, and always have been, broadly uncanny. This doesn't affect everyone, but I believe it prevalent enough to impact retention.

Here's how:

If you want to test this for yourself, go and pick up a new mesh head and swap it for the one you have. If it suddenly feels weird, there you go. For most it will take a about a week for that feeling of discomfort to go away.

That weird feeling when changing heads is after spending time in SL getting used to looking at avatars (especially your own). You have already been training yourself not to be weirded out, and it can still give you a bump.

Stick a newbie in and .. well the only saving grace is they likely can't get the camera around to look at their own face.

Incidentally, if anyone remembers the horrendous CGI age reduced Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy, this is the same effect at play. Everyone working on the film spent so much time looking at that uncanny rendition of a fake human that when it came time to publish, they couldn't see it anymore.

The audience could and they hated every second of it. As a fan of the film, I've watched it plenty, and well .. my broken brain can only see it when the nightmare manikin talks.

Avatar managed to side step this by having blue people that were almost caricatures of the actors using them.

Modern productions that use CGI people, such as Star Wars do a better job, but this is light years ahead of Second Life and even then, they have to use every trick in the book to keep people out of the sick bags.

The rising standard of characters in video games has gone a long way to soften the feeling when joining something like Second Life .. if only we attracted the demographic that played them.

There are some ways to side step this, anime and furry avatars being the simplest. Go to VRChat, what don't you see, people trying to look like a real human, almost to the point its become a cultural note.

So why are human avatars the norm in Second Life?

Simple. We're in Second Life for more than just messing about or playing silly games. SL is a place that comes with both emotional and erotic bandwidth, and while some people can channel those feelings though an anime, furry or otherwise cartoon avatar, plenty can't.

Strong agreement about VRChat — there, the avatars are abstract/cartoonish, but thanks to VOIP being standard, and most hardcore users being in full VR rigs, they can still be highly expressive through their real life voice and body language.

On the other side, this is one reason I haven't updated my Second Life avatar since 2012 or so — having been there so many years before mesh, an upgrade would not feel like, well, me.  

However, I don't think it's inevitable that Second Life became an Uncanny Valley of the Dolls. One design decision that could have been avoided was making conventionally attract human avatars the default — as opposed to offering other default options right in the beginning (robots, dragons, etc.) before a Malibu-style culture became so deeply ingrained.

(As I discuss at length — here comes the inevitable plug — in my book.)

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