The Virtual Whirl: Linden Lab short-lists viral poultry for humanitarian prize

In just a few more days, the winner of the second annual Linden Prize is going to be revealed, and the ten finalists have been announced. The stated criteria for the Linden prize are projects that "[elevate] the human condition through using Second Life," and "that improve the way people work, learn, and communicate in their daily lives outside of the virtual world."

Therefore, I feel it only natural that I was rather astonished to see sionChicken/sionCorn in among the finalists, since it apparently does neither of these things.

Now, there's nothing arguably wrong with sionChicken. It's profitable, engaging, and has generated fans, supporters, detractors and imitators. All the things a successful product or brand does. It's been so successful, in fact, that it should win an award – just not one where it doesn't actually meet the basic criteria.

The sionChicken range basically features virtual chickens, and eggs that can be bred, cared-for and traded, along with a more recent feed product (sionCorn) that can be farmed. It's got both virtual-pet and viral appeal in a neat little bundle.

Apparently well-engineered, conceived, designed and marketed, sionChicken's model would be a strong contender for most sorts of business awards. However, that it should have made it to the finals for this particular prize is kind of like Tamagotchi being a finalist for the Nobel Peace Prize, or Pokémon on the short-list for a Pulitzer.

You'd think that it wouldn't even get past the gate.

So, what's the message being broadcast by the Lab here? Has its panel of judges forgotten what its own prize is about?

The message of sionChicken being in the finalist list seems to be akin to that of an alluring inducement to the writers of Facebook-style games. "You can do really well here!" it says, "And even be in the running to win a US$10,000 humanitarian prize for doing what you already do!"

It might not be that – it might just be that the judges stalled after only nine finalists – but the Linden Prize is at least 50% marketing exercise, and in marketing the impression given is often more important than the reality. So this is a subtext that really stands out, whether it was intentional or not. A clarion call to viral-game developers to move on in, and in-turn to pull in larger user-numbers.

During the week I spoke with Linden Lab about the criteria under which sionChicken was a candidate for the prize at all, let alone among the ten finalists.

While declining to be specific, a Lab spokesman responded, "[W]e can say that in the case of the sionChicken, the compelling results that impressed us included the new commercial and creative opportunities the project created, which had an impact on Residents' offline (and online) lives."

Which basically seems to make it Tamagotchi without the little plastic doodads.

I was also encouraged to keep a watch out for an upcoming blog-post about this particular finalist that would explain more. When it came out, it was a rather disappointing effort -- the blog post trailing off in mid-sentence, just before (apparently) giving out any information on sionChicken's humanitarian merits.

I immediately queried that, but while the blog post has been fixed up, it only really speaks of the finalist's success as a commercial product, and the Lab has not seen fit to respond further.

So, I ask you: A ploy to draw more Facebook developers into bringing their wares to Second Life? A gimmick to just get people talking about the Linden Prize a whole lot? Or perhaps a sign that the Lab really needs some sort of business achievement award to go alongside its humanitarian prize?

What do you think?