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So, sometimes people describe Second Life as a game. This happens especially with people who aren’t Residents of Second Life, but many Residents use the word too.

Other Residents avoid using the word, and still others hate hate hate it when people call Second Life a game. So, is it a game, or isn’t it? That discussion seems to have gone on for a long time, but I think it’s a question with a reasonable answer, and I think there’s a reason to get to that answer.

Here’s the thing: some people call Second Life a game to dismiss it as unimportant, and other people don’t want Second Life called a game because it is important to them. A third group of people just want precise word usage, so they get an answer all to themselves. A fourth group of people don’t understand what all the fuss is about, since after all it’s just a word, and not even a particularly loaded word. This fourth group can sit by and eat popcorn while the rest of us duke it out.

So, the motive here is to bring people together, and so the means is to help people get what they need. Serious Second Lifers need some recognition that what they’re doing is on a different level than playing Tomb Raider. People who don’t think Second Life is serious want to be heard that it isn’t, after all, Real Life. And word usage folks just want us to communicate clearly, because when we don’t, we get into trouble.

First: the word “game” has different meanings. I’ll use two of http://www.princeton.edu’s definitions that kind of sum up the problem.

game: a contest with rules to determine a winner. “You need four people to play this game”
game: an amusement or pastime. “They played word games.” (There are two more examples, but one’s a simile and the other’s a metaphor, which makes them non-illustrative. The nerve! 😉 )

OK, so is Second Life the first kind of game? I suspect we can agree it isn’t. It has games in it that can be won, but you can’t “win a game of” Second Life in any literal sense.

How about the second? Well, yes. I don’t think there’s any argument that Second Life is an amusement or pastime, is there? It may not be just an amusement or pastime, but some people would say the same of chess or football, which are clearly games.

So it’s a game, right? Well, not so fast. By the “amusement or pastime” definition, television is a game, as are sex, feeding pigeons, skydiving, flirting, reading, and even your work, if you find it amusing. In fact, almost anything could be a game by that definition, if it’s amusing. So do you use the word that way? Do you say “I’m going to go play a game of television?”

Sorry, now I’m being silly. Of course you don’t, and that doesn’t mean that this use of the word is nonsense or anything, just that maybe it’s a bit of a stretch sometimes.

The thing is, when people hear Second Life called a game, they’re going to think that it’s the first definition and get completely the wrong idea of what Second Life is, or else they’ll think of the second definition and get the impression that Second Life is only an amusement.

Which brings us to those first two groups of people, the ones who want it understood that Second Life is not trivial and the ones who want it understood that Second Life is less important than real life. It’s exactly that use of the word that’s getting in the way here.

So the answer to the question “Is Second Life a game?” is “Depends: do you want to make it sound important or unimportant?”

It is important to some people, so “game” will sometimes be a very misleading word. And it’s not as important as real life, so “game” will sometimes help us keep perspective. What I’d suggest is steering clear of it. Instead of having a hidden debate about the significance of Second Life, we can have an open discussion where we say what we mean.

I’ll start: Second Life is important to me. I have emotional attachment to people I meet in Second Life. It provides me with a lot of joy and an opportunity for personal expression, and neither of those is a small thing.

And it’s also unimportant to me, because if someone were to say that I’d have to give up seeing a family member or start doing a job I hated to play Second Life, I’d give it up.

So for me it’s only a game in the joyful sense, in the same sense that Real Life is a game we play, winning or losing only ourselves. Since we just go back in the box when the game is over, the only real way to win is to love to play.

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