In retrospect, I was a fool to mention Barack Obama in a place where I could get body-slammed. But I was well into my first hour as an avatar in Google Lively, the search company's frustrating and dull new virtual world, and I was bored. I'd already explored the room designed to resemble Google's gleeful corporate headquarters; conversation there never progressed beyond "Hello," "How old are you?" and "What should we do here?" Now I was in a room that looked like a high-school science lab. It was a rough scene. A guy shaped like a bobble-headed baby was punching and kicking the female avatars, and another dude kept blowing things up. "So, have you guys been following Obama's overseas trip?" I ventured, to break the ice. "Didn't catch it," one woman said. Then the baby dropped a huge anvil on me, and that was that.
Digital worlds have won a great deal of press attention—the Sims Online made the cover of Time when it launched in 2002, and there have been perhaps billions of news stories about Second Life. Despite all this hubbub, none of these virtual worlds has managed to gain mainstream appeal. The Sims Online never took off; Electronic Arts, its parent company, plans to shut it down at the end of this month.
Google's new service, which launched in early July, looks like it will fit perfectly in a field littered with failures. Lively is still rough, but even in a more complete form, it seems unlikely to take virtual worlds mainstream. The service is freighted with technical problems: I've had trouble using it for more than an hour without seeing it crash, and even when it works, it's terribly slow (also, it runs only on Windows machines). But tech difficulties are the least of Lively's troubles. Its oppressive dreariness is more worrisome.
Imagine an amusement park that lacks any rides, games, entertainers, and junk food. That's Lively: The place looks fun, and you're sure to spend a few minutes exploring its pretty 3-D landscapes, but then what? Your only option is to talk to people—and that's where the trouble begins. Google's avatar-designing tools are not yet as sophisticated as those in other online worlds, so everyone in Lively looks pretty similar. You find yourself repeating the same questions to every avatar: How old are you? Where do you live? Oh, that's interesting, and what do you do? Fascinating, tell me more.
Some people may find this a thrilling use of their time; I kept switching back to my e-mail, hoping I'd received some interesting spam. And I wasn't alone. Like prisoners in solitary, everyone here keeps lamenting that they've got nothing to do. It's no wonder people turn to violence. Among the actions Lively allows you to perform on others are body-slam, kick, kung fu, punch, slap, and squash. True, there's also kiss and hug, but boredom doesn't inspire generosity of spirit. Lifting another avatar and throwing him to the ground produces a thrilling animated sequence, and for an instant, at least, you're having fun.
It's entirely possible that in my trips to Lively, I simply visited the wrong places. Unlike Second Life, Lively isn't technically a virtual world—it's more like a virtual apartment complex, a common architecture that connects a group of unrelated "rooms." In Second Life, you're allowed to interact with pretty much everyone else who's using the software. In Lively, your conversations are limited to the other people nearby; anyone else using the software is as good as dead to you.
Google's setup is a clever attempt to widen Lively's appeal. Because different groups of people can hang out in different rooms, Lively could become all things to all people: The jocks can party in one room while the nerds study in another, neither troubling the other. Lively works through a Web interface, and each room can be "embedded" on a Web site as easily as a YouTube clip. Google imagines that sites will use Lively to add a three-dimensional chat space to their existing communities. Lefty politicos might hang out in a Lively room embedded on Daily Kos, say, while those on the right congregate in a room on Red State. Perhaps in those niche-interest rooms, conversation would flow more easily than in rooms on Lively's most-popular list. There's always the chance, though, that a griefer will stop in and drop anvils on everyone.
Virtual worlds haven't yet taken off for the simple reason that talking to strangers in a 3-D space is not for everyone. Multiplayer games like World of Warcraft have a built-in advantage here; if people get sick of each other, they can always just play the game. Purely social worlds like Second Life, places that lack any obvious elements of gameplay, are known to have a large "churn rate"—the vast majority of people who try them out don't take up permanent residence.
Second Life, which garnered tremendous enthusiasm when worldwide brands and political campaigns began advertising in it, has had little luck getting users to stick around. Only 500,000 people regularly log in, and when you land there, it's easy to see why. The service seems to offer nothing more than the chance to do what you normally do on the Internet—IM, e-mail, buy stuff—through a harder-to-use interface. The people who take to this tend to be those comfortable with typed banter, people interested in the aesthetics of online space, people looking for cybersex. The one positive note: Second Life has been held up as a bastion for disabled people, who use it as a way to fantasize about life in other bodies.
For the rest of us, virtual worlds can seem pointless. The other day I was in a crowded Lively room, surrounded by avatars who were dancing, punching, screaming, and laughing. "Nothing to do here, I don't think I'll come back," one guy announced to the room. Finally, I'd made a real connection.