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Love and Sex in Second Life

Posted: Mon, January 14, 2013 | By: Extropia DaSilva



Valentine’s day is not far off, so I thought it would be a good idea to talk about romance. When I host discussions about love and sex in Second Life, these are the points most commonly debated:

The issue of trust. Can you trust that the avatar is a faithful representation of the person behind it? When (if ever) does roleplaying cross over to deception?

The acceleration factor. Compared to the actual world, intimate inworld relationships develop faster.

‘Inside out’: The belief that, whereas in RL we are first attracted to our partner’s physical attributes, in SL it is the ‘inner qualities’ that attract us.

Another point that is commonly raised is that it is kind of peculiar that people should use Second Life to enter into romantic relationships at all because (so some believe) romancing somebody you ‘never met’ is just ludicrous.

But this would be a mistaken assumption, because, when it comes to attraction,  it is repeated exposure to someone, rather than their physical presence, that matters. This was demonstrated in experiments conducted by Robert Zajonc. He pretended to be conducting an experiment in visual memory, which involved subjects looking at photographs of different people. Each viewing lasted 35 seconds, but Zajonc varied the number of times each photograph was shown. The actual purpose of the test was to determine whether or not a correlation exists between the frequency of exposure to someone and the level of liking toward them. Zajonc found that his subjects tended to feel more positively toward the persons whose photographs were shown most frequently.

When interacting online, one has the opportunity to be repeatedly exposed to aspects of behaviour that would be much harder to ascertain from a simple photograph. This was reflected in comments made by ‘Charlie’ in interviews with Tom Boellstorf in his book ‘Coming Of Age in Second Life’:

“I met my SL boyfriend the first week I was here. I came to an event at his club, and I was so impressed with him right away, thought what he did was so incredible. I would come back every day and looked forward to his events. And I began to have feelings for him”. 

This quote also shows that a kind of proximity does exist online, a point that was made by Deb Levine who wrote ‘the Joy of Cybersex’. Levine points out that proximity in cyberspace is defined by a chatroom, MMOG, online world, that users have in common. Meeting people online entails being in the same chatroom etc at the same time as they are using it. Because chatrooms etc often have themes, the Web also facilitates another principle cause of falling in love. One can spend time in chatrooms that revolve around a subject one is interested in. Since other participants are likely to be interested in the subject as well, there is a better chance of meeting someone who is similar to yourself. Arguably, this makes online spaces more suitable for dating than ‘singles bars’ where proximity is defined by co-presence in a physical location, but which does not necessarily concentrate people with common interests into that area. As Deb Levine reasoned, “your best bet is to find a community that revolves around a subject in which you are interested…and spend time there on a regular basis”. 

Tom Boellstorff has argued that people confuse episteme (or knowledge) with techne (or craft) when being sceptical of the ability to fall in love and have meaningful relationships online. Speaking for such skeptics, someone called ‘Halo Evermore’ made the following comments at Thinkers:

“I think SL ‘relationships’ are ridiculous…why not have a real life romance? Why would someone want an SL relationship without touch and real sex”? Halo also made the point (as did several others) that “it’s so easy to lie to someone in this game”.

Regarding this latter point, Tom Boellstorff said “what operationalizes love in virtual worlds is not knowing who someone is in the actual world, but crafting a relationship within the virtual world”.  Notice that Halo refers to SL as a ‘game’ which is associated with words like ‘pretend’. But what if you think of SL as a ‘place’? Take the quote from ‘Charlie’ for instance, the one that begins ‘I met my SL boyfriend the first week I was here’. If you swap the first sentence for one that reads ‘I met my boyfriend in the first week I moved to San Francisco’, doesn’t the rest of the quotation read like a perfectly legitimate reason for falling in love?

LOVE LETTERS STRAIGHT FROM THE HEART

Obviously it is true that no physical touch exists between avatars. In fact, it is often the case that two avatars embracing one another will pass between each other’s bodies as though they were phantoms. Rhiannon Dragoone referred to this lack of physicality when she said, “when you hit someone with a hammer here, it isn’t real”. But she also made the point that “when you make a cutting remark it is [real]”. So, while physical acts that happen inworld are, at best, crude approximations of the real thing, mental acts are indistinguishable.

When it comes to any physical show of affection such as a kiss, a caress, or holding hands, this act is very much a form of communication that imparts one’s subjective feelings toward another. It is an emotional touch as well as a physical one. When someone somewhere on another computer agrees to having their avatar perform a kiss, perhaps embellishing it with textual or spoken descriptions like ‘our lips brush softly together, and the warmth of your body against mine makes me shiver slightly in passion’, the same emotional touch that accompanies a kiss in the actual world unites these people who are co-present in a virtual world.

If this is comparable to anything, it is the act of writing love letters. As the song famously goes, “love letters straight from the heart, keeping us near while apart”. How many, while listening to this song, feel it hard to relate to the sentiments it expresses? Imagine someone responding thus: “How can anyone feel sentimental over a load of words on a piece of paper?”. The answer to which, obviously, is that it is the emotions the love letter conveys which is important, not the medium which conveys them. We may also suppose that, for the person who wrote the love letter and for whom it was written, a great deal of shared personal history existed between them, imbuing each sentence with meaning that might have been lost on a stranger reading the letter. Similarly, shared personal history in SL can add layers of meaning to the animations and poses that stand in for kisses and cuddles. For instance, I remember when I said something insulting to my best friend, a response triggered by a situation that arose (and which my friend was not responsible for). I regretted lashing out at her afterward and expressed my shame. At this point, the message from SL requesting permission to animate my avatar popped up on my screen. My friend wanted to hug me to demonstrate her acceptance of my apology and to show our friendship still had meaning for her. One can well imagine a stranger, unaware of any past history, watching avatars performing a ‘cuddle’ animation and feeling no attachment whatsoever. But for me (and my friend) the hug was as important a reconciliation as any real life hug would be.

Or think about ‘Charlie’. Perhaps it is not too much of an exaggeration to suppose that, while she waited to see how her male interest would respond to her request for a virtual kiss, she felt much the same excited trepidation one feels when about to kiss someone in real life? “Have I misread the signs? Am I about to make a fool of myself?”. And when her flame reacted positively to her advances, is it really so hard to imagine she felt that same happy feeling one has when you are attracted to someone who is likewise attracted to you?

I once tried to summarise all this to my best friend in the following way:

“If one person can imagine wanting to kiss someone, and that someone can imagine wanting to be kissed by that person, and they can communicate their desires over the Internet, and that communication is heartfelt, then it (that is, the kiss) really happens”.

Someone put forward much the same argument in ‘Coming Of Age in Second Life’, saying “you can be blind and be in love; the brain compensates fully for the lack of sensorial input. So the SL experience doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to be good to a certain degree, and from there on, the brain takes over”.

SECOND LIFE VERSUS GRAND THEFT AUTO

I think relationships in SL are built around another crucial ingredient. You can ‘date’ in the videogame ‘Grand Theft Auto 4’ by logging on to a dating website and arranging to meet whoever takes your fancy. But, despite the fact that the initial reasons for attraction exist here, GTA4 ‘dates’ miss that crucial ingredients and so never arise above pure fantasy. Hiro Pendragon highlighted that essential element when he said:

“Without choice, their emotions are meaningless”.

‘Dates’ in GTA4 have no free will because they are merely bots with pre-canned responses triggered by the appropriate action. The mechanics of the game limit the actions the player is permitted to make, and some of those actions are pre-determined to get the girl or boy to ‘desire’ you. Relationships in SL sometimes come down to a binary choice presented in a pop-up window. ‘Will you be my friend? (yes/no), ‘you have been offered a TP to the following location (accept/cancel)’, ‘do you give permission to animate your avatar? (yes/no)’. But I know I exercise free will when I choose to accept or decline such offers and I believe my partner also has free will. These pop-ups can represent stages in the evolution of a relationship from intitial encounter to mutual liking (‘be my friend’), to a desire for exclusiveness (an invitation to TP to a private sim) to a mutual desire for lovemaking (both agree to jump on that bed and use the sex balls). There is nothing pre-determined about any of this, no routines coded into SL that directs the actions of a bot into behaving as if it wants to give and receive intimacy. Instead, what we have are stages developing out of free choices, all occurring in a complex environment that is more appropriately labelled a ‘place’ rather than a game. In ‘Life Is Not A Dating Site’, blogger Christopher Hutchinson shared this insightful comment from his real-life partner:

“What for me made SL a more telling and more honest platform than a traditional dating site, much closer to real life, was that I was able to observe how you interacted with others, you unaware that I was watching you and listening to you. That told me a lot about you, far more about you than I’d have learned from traditional Internet dating”.

The choices a person makes in SL are meaningful because the consequences persist and spread out like ripples on a pond until they affect not just the couple directly involved, but others who are part of their social network. For people sparsely connected to that network, the effects might be imperceptible, but nevertheless they are there. To say these evolving relationships are not real just because they occur within the context of an online world is to make the basic mistake of equating ‘virtual’ with ‘fictional’. But, everyone knows that saying “this conversation never happened because it took place within the auditory virtual reality of a telephone call” would be a very weak argument. Of course, not every relationship in SL is deeply meaningful and a lot of the sex that goes on there is done for a lark. But, then, plenty of RL sexual encounters are of a frivolous nature too. Acknowledging the existence of such cheap encounters does not negate the existence of genuinely meaningful relationships between couples, in SL or RL.

WHAT ARE THE CRUCIAL ASPECTS?

It is a fact that online courtship is missing some of the aspects of courtship in the actual world. Specifically, physical touch. It is unarguable that any courtship which can provide the full spectrum of affection, the physical as well as the emotional, must be preferable to one where some aspects are missing. On the other hand, imagine the following scenario: Roboticists perfect sex dolls, and now you can get a lifelike ‘man’ or ‘woman’ whose synthetic skin looks and feels indistinguishable from the real thing. It has the same texture, the same warmth. Your man (or woman) can offer the same physical intimacies that a human male or female can offer. But, it is entirely physical. Your partner has no personality at all. He or she is an animated department store dummy. If you compared a relationship with this partner to one that occurs online and offers no physical touch but the full spectrum of  emotional connections  and meeting of minds with a vital living being, as projected through an avatar, well, which seems more like a legitimate partnership? If you think the ‘avatar’ offers something closer to a legitimate relationship, you are considering the emotional aspects of love and sex to be more important than the physical aspects. 

“WHEN I THINK ABOUT YOU, I TOUCH MYSELF” 

“Sex is not only a beautiful expression of love and affection but, for many people, the most meaningful one”, wrote sexologist Gloria G. Brame. Again, I would not question the assertion that great RL sex beats virtual sex hands down. But that is not quite the same thing as denying the belief that SL sex can be ’a beautiful expression of love and affection’. “The first Second Life kiss was awesome and special”, reckoned Phil Murdock, quoted in Wagner Au’s ’The Making Of SL’. Some might argue they never really kissed, but I disagree. If two people agree that something is synonymous with a kiss (think of those Xs that one may find under a beloved’s signature), to receive that something is to communicate the same message a kiss is intended to convey. I am not saying what Murdock and his sweetheart exchanged was exactly like a kiss, because lips brushing together is its own unique experience. But what they exchanged could have been as meaningful, emotionally-speaking.  

In her book, ‘The Truth About Sex’, Gloria Brame highlighted the ‘fundamental building block of adult sexual performance’:

‘From a sexological point of view, the sexually healthiest person is the one who enjoys exploring his or her full potential for pleasure… If we were not raised to separate our pelvic region from the rest of our body, we would explore liberally, front and back, until we found exactly the right set of sensations that brought us the greatest level of sexual satisfaction’.

If you have an SL account, it is highly likely you were raised in a culture where sexual self-exploration is discouraged or even punished. Following the cultural taboos against masturbation, we treat individuals who touch themselves or employ sex aids while alone with a laptop as folks who deserve ridicule. We really aught to drop this sexually immature attitude and accept the weight of scientific evidence showing how perfectly normal and healthy it is to explore one’s own sensuality, provided it does not adversely affect other aspects of an individual’s life. In fact, such self-exploration is a vital first step in becoming an expert lover. Each and every body is unique and sensuality differs from person to person. Physical variations include different levels of skin sensitivity, how close veins may be to the surface, and how the nerves cluster in concentrations. According to Brame, “such normal physical variations contribute to differences in sensitivity and response; the same caress that feels fantastic to one person could feel painful to another and won’t feel like anything at all to a third”. We can see, then, that real-life sex may be unsatisfying or even unpleasant if your partner rubs you up the wrong way (so to speak). On the other hand, the physical side of SL sex involves being felt up by the one person who best knows how to exploit your body’s unique sweet spots- namely, yourself!

According to Brame, “some people miss out on wonderful sexual opportunities because they assume their partner will share their own definitions… don’t make assumptions: develop a common sexual language with your partner”. It really should come as no surprise to learn that the couples who have the most fulfilling sex lives are those who are most open and honest in telling and showing their partner what most turns them on. As a prelude to RL encounters, SL sex would likely serve to make any eventual physical encounter more special and intimate. After all, the main activity of SL sex involves a kind of co-authored erotic narrative in which both participants speaks or texts their turn-ons, adjusting every response to the descriptions provided by their partner. ‘Snow Hare’, the SL partner of Phil Murdock, explained, “before real life, I knew what he liked and enjoyed and vice versa. Since we were honest with each other and were very compatible, it was easy to know what to expect in real life”. Murdock agreed, saying, “it was almost like meeting an old friend and a lot of the nervousness of a first date wasn’t there. This medium definitely lets two people share their feelings and desires for one another, and that is a powerful thing in itself”.

So this couple have experienced lovemaking both in a virtual and a physical context and, while they are on record as saying RL sex is ‘obviously better’, it is clear that their virtual sex lives were erotic and meaningful too. On the other hand, in my experience it is people who never bothered to even try out SL sex who dismiss it as something devoid of fulfillment. I don’t think their opinions should count for much, frankly.

VISUAL APPEARENCES

Many people would argue that something else is missing from online relationships: The visual appearance of your love interest. Deb Levine argued that, because the visual aspect of a person’s identity is missing, “the online world gives people who do not fit a stereotypical model of beauty a chance to be Don Juans and Carman Mirandas… For those considered beautiful by societal standards, it gives them a chance to be attractive for reasons other than their physical qualities”.

It seems to be a popular opinion that physical attractiveness plays little to no part in someone’s reason for being attracted to someone else in SL. This attitude was expressed by Anouk Valeska at Thinkers: “Online you can see the inner person before judging based on the outside”. It is easy to see how this might be the case with ‘the online world’ of the Web itself, what with all its forums and chat rooms where texting is the only means of communication. But, clearly, the situation is a bit different with an online world like SL, where everyone does have a visual appearance in the form of their avatar. 

YOUR CHOSEN LOOK

You can, with some effort, take on any visual appearance you like in SL. But anyone wandering around the online world will come to realise that, for most people, the favoured appearance is a human with an instantly recognisable gender that carries all the stereotypical attributes of beauty for that gender. But does the appearance of the avatar affect the way we judge people, and does it have any bearings on how people feel in themselves?

This latter question was examined in an experiment conducted by Nick Yee. What happened was, participants were assigned avatars, some of which were more attractive than average, some less attractive. The participants were asked to spend 20 minutes talking to other avatars about their personal lives. It was noted that those who had been assigned more attractive avatars exhibited more signs of confident behaviour, such as positioning themselves closer to the avatar they were talking with, and divulging more personal information. As for those who had been assigned less attractive avatars, they tended to act aloof. This inworld behaviour occurred irrespective of the actual physical attractiveness of the person controlling the avatar. Whether this person was handsome or not, embodying a beautiful avatar affected one’s behaviour such that they displayed behaviour typical of their avatar’s appearance.

Now, there is a difference between the virtual reality employed in Nick Yee’s study, and Second Life. This was because the former virtual world made use of headsets that fully immersed the participants in audio and visual virtual reality. When they moved their limbs, they perceived their virtual limbs moving. SL is not as immersive as this, since it is viewed confined to a screen and you operate your avatar remotely via the keyboard. Perhaps, then, being less immersed in SL and less embodied as one’s avatar reduces the tendency to change one’s behaviour to suit the avatar? On the other hand, one has the chance to spend much more time as an avatar in SL than the mere 20 minutes people spent as avatars in Yee’s study. And, for all people, unlike in Yee’s study the individual can edit their avatar’s appearance until it is most visually appealing to his or herself. One suspects that spending lots of time as one’s idealized visual self boosts self- confidence.

What about the other aspect of visual appearance, the way others act toward it? I have sometimes wondered if stereotypical human beauty might be less attractive inworld than more abstract representations. Let me be clear that I am not talking about ugly avatars which are easy to do (since one can quickly and easily adjust one’s avatar so that it looks deformed) and is associated by many (rightly or wrongly) as the visual appearance of choice for griefers. I mean an avatar that is not human at all, but totally abstract. It could be argued that such an avatar would signal several attractive qualities. It would signal creative thinking, the ability to be inspired. If there was something humorous about the creation it would signal a sense of humour. If the avatar looked like the result of a great deal of work, that would signal commitment to Second Life (remember, that a key aspect of falling in love is feeling secure in the knowledge your partner will not disappear). Wouldn’t an avatar that is beautiful, but not stereotypically so, be more attractive than all those Barbies and Action Men out there?

YOU CAN’T TRUST THE ANDROGYNOUS

A study by Kristine Nowak and Christine Rauch of the University of Conneticut suggests otherwise. They wanted to know whether or not an avatar’s appearance affect how others perceive you. Participants typed messages to one another, and were assigned a variety of avatars ranging from those with a clearly defined gender to ones that were completely androgynous. When asked to rate the other participants, the volunteers tended to consider those with androgynous avatars to be less trustworthy. Nowak and Rauch attributed this breakdown in trust to the non-human appearance of the avatar, a conclusion that was supported by MIT Media Lab’s Judith Donna: “If someone says ‘that’s so sweet’, was it sisterly or patronising?”, she said, arguing that avatars of no clear gender come across as being more difficult to ‘read’.

But, whichever avatar is more likely to be seen as attractive, the fact that everyone does have an avatar in SL provides one of the key influences in promoting attraction: Mystery. As David Levy explained in his book, ‘Love and Sex With Robots’, “a person who carries an air of mystery will often be found to be romantically appealing”. And Sherry Turkle said that, “often the appeal is that we don’t know who they ‘really’ are. So they might be perfect”.

DRAW ME A MAGIC CIRCLE

It seems that when we read a story, the world and its inhabitants take precedence over the creative act. What I mean is this: While reading any book, you could imagine the author writing or typing the very sentence you are reading right now. You could picture him or her sat in front of a computer, research material at their side, occasionally gazing off into space in search of inspiration, and slowly shaping their manuscript into a proper story. But I bet you never do such a thing. Instead, what you see in your mind’s eye is the fictional world and its characters. You see a little girl, trying each bowl of porridge and deciding one is too hot, one too cold, and one just right.

In online worlds, though, there is a tendency to emphasise the real at the expense of the fantasy. If it were revealed that the person behind the avatar known as ’Harry Potter’ was actually a woman called Joanne Rowling, a lot of people would insist on labelling ’Harry’ as ’she’. After all, ’his’ gender is really female. And while we treat Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger and all the other characters as individuals who have knowledge, motives or feelings that differ from each other, in online worlds we would consider these alts to be the same person, and each must be treated as One.

How can we explain this difference? One thing to consider is the boundary between the fictional world and real life- what Johan Hutzinga called the ’Magic Circle’. With a fictional story, we  draw a definite boundary separating the world and its inhabitants via the suspension of disbelief. We accept that, within the magic circle the author invited us into, bears live in houses and know how to cook porridge. And when the book is closed, the time has come to stop believing in bears that talk.

In the case of an online world, the boundary separating it from reality is much more indistinct. If I close a book, and let my mind concentrate on other matters, the world I was so engrossed in no longer exists. But, if I log off from SL, it does still exist, thanks to the thousands of people who remain logged-in. You could argue that someone, somewhere is probably always reading ‘Goldilocks’, so its world must exist in someone’s imagination at any given moment. But that is more like many copies of a world in which the same actions and consequences are repeated again and again. SL, on the other hand, has an open-ended narrative collaboratively constructed by its many participants. An avatar’s social network may also extend beyond SL itself. You could argue that someone logged-out of SL but still chatting with their friends on Gtalk, or posting an upcoming event on Facebook or responding to a blog post about something that happened inworld, is still an active participant.

There is no consensus regarding the boundary between real life and 2nd life. Each individual must decide for themselves what aspects of their real life should cross over into Second Life, and vice versa. Since the choices made by one person are almost certain to differ with those made by other people, we aught to expect conflicts to emerge from time to time. Online worlds provide plenty of scope for multiplicity. People can and do create alternate characters with varying degrees of commonality or separation between each alt. In a world of indistinct boundaries and constructed identities, what is considered an act of infidelity, and what is not?

YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART?

I thought I would seek opinions on this, so I described various scenarios and invited people to decide which ones were an act on infidelity, and which were not. I gave participants the choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but some of them chose a third option for some of the scenarios: ‘Maybe’.

Of the six scenarios, two were overwhelmingly considered as not involving cheating. One was:

‘A married woman spends a few hours per day writing a story, written in the first-person. It is about a woman, very much like herself, who is in love with a man very unlike her husband’.

No participant considered this to be an act of unfaithfulness, and Lem Skall’s reasoning, ‘there is no intimacy with another person, the act was made alone’, is almost certainly what everyone was thinking.

The other scenario was ‘a man in a long term relationship takes his girlfriend to the cinema, but finds himself becoming sexually attracted to the female character’. I really did not expect anyone to consider either of these scenarios as ‘cheating’. While this turned out to be the case in the ‘author’ scenario (although Dedric Maoria said the husband might become jealous if he read what is wife had written), the ‘cinema’ scenario did get one ‘yes’, from Scarp Godenot.

Now let us look at the two scenarios that were seen as an act of infidelity by a majority of participants. One was:

‘A married woman creates an idealized version of herself on a social networking site. An online friendship turns to romance, and she spends a few hours per day exchanging very intimate messages with her online lover’.

Of the 11 people who agreed to take part, 8 decided the woman in this scenario was being unfaithful to her husband, one thought she was not, and one (Lukemary Slade) was unsure, telling me ‘it depends. Is a yes if she gets involved, no if it is just a matter of emails and if she doesn’t choose to stay online chatting and writing emails instead of, for instance, going out for dinner with her family’. On the other hand, Gwyneth Llewelyn, who did regard this as cheating, argued ‘substitute “social networking site” for “face to face communication” and you understand why I gave this answer: For me, “air” and “Internet” are similar media for communication’.

The other scenario considered by a majority to involve cheating was:

“A man who is single in real life has a partner in SL. They have been together for years and are committed to a monogamous relationship. The man considers his avatar to be a roleplayed character whose thoughts, feelings and motivations may not necessarily reflect his own. He creates an alt, designed to be a separate character from his main account. This alt enjoys commitment-free sex, which she indulges in a lot’.

Qie Niango decided all the scenarios were ‘no except for 6, which is a ‘not sure’ for me. The others are clearly “faithful” within a specific context (RL or “fantasy” more or less). But number 6 is different in that it’s possibly unfaithful within a single (SL) context…We don’t know that the partner is unaware of the alt’s existence, nor that there’s a difference in the “roleplayed character” nature of the relationship’.

I had hypothesized that those two scenarios would be seen as cheating by a majority of people. In the case of the ‘alts’ scenario, I guessed most would regard this as cheating because people generally consider an alt to be a different aspect of oneself. In other words, this scenario does not involve two characters (three, if you include the RL man behind each avatar), it involves one person, so he must be cheating if he has many sexual partners with his alt account but is effectively married on his main account.

As for the ‘social network’ scenario, I reasoned that most people regard such things as communications technology like the telephone or letter writing, rather than a platform for roleplaying like a MUD. I also believed that I could change one or two details that, while describing essentially the same scenario, would not be considered cheating by as many people. Here is that scenario:

‘A married woman spends a few hours per day co-authoring a romantic novel. This is done over email with a person she has not met, The story takes the form of an exchange of intimate love letters. She (in character) writes and replies in the first-person, as does her co-author’.

Whereas a person creating an idealized self and corresponding via intimate messages exchanged on a social networking site with someone she never physically met  was seen as cheating by 8 out of 11 people, the scenario in which co-authors imagine themselves to be characters and collaborate on a book using email exchanges was viewed as cheating by 6 people, not seen as cheating by 2, leaving 2 not sure either way.

When thinking about two people corresponding via an exchange of letters or instant messages, we tend to imagine they are speaking in their own voice, rather than projecting a fantasy character. On the other hand, the act of co-authoring a story or developing a character on a MUD is seen as roleplaying, and even though the first-person may still be used, ‘I’ is understood not to refer to the author or actor, but to the character.

In actual fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. It is hard not to allow aspects of oneself to cross over the divide and become part of a roleplayed character, especially in an online world where there is no ‘narrative’  in the traditional sense to frame that character and affirm its distinction from the RL person behind it.  It is tempting to add droplets of fiction to a portrayal of one’s ‘actual self’, because it is preferable that others should view you as you would ideally like to be seen, rather than as you really are.

IS THIS LYING?

It is accepted that people lie about themselves, but what kind of lies are acceptable? To what extent should a person be allowed to re-invent oneself online? Rhiannon Dragoone made an interesting comment at a Thinkers discussion: “There is roleplaying, image projection, being other than your first-life self, and then there are lies”. The implication is that we should draw a line separating lies from projecting an identity that differs from one’s own. But, as is the case with any abstract boundary, different attitudes and beliefs lead to disagreements over where the lines should be drawn. This much is obvious from the conflicting beliefs put forward by people at Thinkers. On the subject of fidelity, for example, Scarp Godenot said, “I would consider a romantic relationship in SL to be cheating on my RL partner”. On the other hand, Rhiannon Dragoone pointed out that “there are people who have relationships here, even though they are married in first life. It’s like they are single in SL and married in first life. Don’t see a problem with it, nor do their partners”. Clearly, trouble lies in store for any relationship in which a couple fundamentally disagree on whether or not online affairs count as being unfaithful. One such case made it into news headlines back in 2008. David Pollard had met Amy Taylor via their avatars in Second Life and they subsequently got married in real life. David never committed adultery in real life, but engaged in sexual relationships in SL. To him, this was not cheating because cybersex was merely a fantasy and it involved his avatar, not himself. Amy, though, considered this an act of betrayal serious enough to end the marriage.

One wonders if this couple ever sat down and talked their different attitudes. It’s obvious that no one drawing of the boundaries can accommodate all  beliefs. People embarking on online romances have to negotiate the terms and conditions of their own relationships, or decide whether it is better to compromise on one’s own convictions or walk away. One way to distinguish a lie from roleplaying may be ’any act that is contrary to agreed boundaries’. For instance, one couple in SL made a rule that extramarital affairs were permissible so long as it was done using an alt. Some might wonder what difference this makes. It’s like saying ’phone sex with somebody else is fine, but only if you use a different cellular phone”. But, whatever, it was their rule and it worked for them. Had one of them broken this rule, I would consider that lying to their partner. 

Talking to other residents about the subject of what is, and what is not, permissible in roleplay, one attitude that seems to come up a lot is the belief that the harder it is to identify a projection as being ’other than oneself’, the more problematic it is. Scarp Godenot commented, “ I suspect playing an opposite sex seems more deviant because others know for sure that you are not [a furry] whereas they don’t know about an opposite sex”. Several others agreed with the sentiment that gender swapping is particularly deviant (but others disagreed, saying ’it is not deviant, an avatar is only an avatar’). By the same token, posting somebody else’s RL photograph in your profile is more deviant than posting an avatar’s portrait. While both are, strictly speaking, not representative of the actual person, a prospective partner can see this is the case with an avatar, but one might not realise the photograph of a real-life person is not a true representation of someone’s actual appearance.  

Another belief that gets expressed quite a lot is the idea that if you intend to take an online relationship into the real world, then you need to conform your avatar to your RL identity. When, Lem Skall asked, “what does it matter what the RL person is like, even whether it’s a man or a woman?” Ivy Sunkiller replied, “it obviously does matter if you want to transfer the relationship to real life. Otherwise, personally, I don’t care”.

YOU CAN’T FAKE THIS

I wonder, though, if it really is true that anybody ‘really doesn’t care’ what the RL person is like? It is certainly the case that some people have quite fulfilling relationships within SL and other online spaces, knowing full-well their feelings are being projected onto what is essentially a fantasy figure. But I suspect that even the most ardent immersionist counts on the person behind the avatar being, in some sense, just like the persona they project. I suspect we all like to believe that there are some aspects to a person which simply cannot be faked and it is these qualities that we form loving relationships around.

Should we believe such a thing, given that there are roleplayers in SL? In a study of the kinds of roleplay that go on in SL, Sounya Jain noted that relatively few residents (32%) wanted to reproduce their physical appearance through their avatars. The study also found that the more an avatar’s physical appearance differed (in an idealized way) from one’s actual appearance, the more attached to that avatar the user becomes. When it came to personality, though, the study found the opposite applies. On average, it is residents with the smallest psychological difference between RL and SL identities that are most satisfied and most attached to their avatars. Jain wrote, “we saw that users tend to see their avatar as having an idealized version of their own personality”. This corresponds with Turkle’s point about online identities being  oneself written into the person you want to be. But Jain’s study also determined that there is a correspondence between personality difference and time spent in SL. The more time a person spends inworld, the less their online/offline personalities diverge. In the conclusion to the study, Sounya Jain commented, “overall, our data suggests that avatars might be a better vehicle to explore new forms of physical embodiment rather than exploring facets of one’s personality”.

THE ACCELERATION FACTOR

As we have seen, it is true that SL is missing some of the elements of RL courtship, such as physical touch. But it also amplifies others. In 1996, Joe Walther of Cornell University coined the phrase ‘hyper personal effect’, to denote the tendency of people online to be more honest and intimate with others. Walther attributed this tendency to the fact that communication typically occurred via text. One has the time to construct a response, and one is freed from worrying about how one looks and sounds. This means people can focus exclusively on what they are saying. In 2002, Walther conducted a study that showed people communicating online are more likely to disclose personal details about themselves, behaviour he attributed to the fact that online anonymity can act as a shield from disapproving facial expressions and awkward consequences.

Of course, one does have a visual appearance in SL. But one is nevertheless largely freed from having to worry about visual appearance, because avatars just don’t have a bad hair day (well, not after you adjust the hair so it correctly fits your avatar). Inappropriate body language of a kind can exist (see ‘The Poseball, the Animation and the Intentional Stance’ by Koshian Fisher), but I suspect most people focus their attention on text chat, IM or voice. This was supported by Wagner James Au who wrote in ‘The Making of Second Life’, “the real drama is in the space where seduction takes place [and] relationships (real or virtual) are formed…the private middle space of IMs”.

So, I think it is likely that a hyper personal effect can arise out of the mask of anonymity offered by an avatar, and the freedom from having to worry about visual appearance (once you have crafted it into your idealized avatar).  Appearing as one’s idealized self probably boosts one’s self confidence, and the air of mystery that surrounds an avatar aids in one’s romantic appeal as well. In short, we look great, we think we are somewhat more shielded from disapproval than is the case in RL, and we flirt accordingly. Many people cite a speedup in romance as being common in SL. I think the reasons I have given go some way to explaining why this acceleration factor exists. I asked participants at Thinkers why they thought it occurs. Responses included:

“SL implies roleplaying; roleplaying implies narrative, stories…stories are generally compressed in time”- Madeleine Fitzgerald.

“We can change our environment. We can live in a new house as often as we like, for example. After several changes like this, we perceive a large amount of time as having past”- Scarp Godenot.

“We suspend disbelief enough to trust others more quickly”- Scarp Godenot.

“I have been here a year and I’m still not married”- Alexi Flux.

I would imagine that last statement was intended to show how not everyone engages in accelerated romances in SL. And indeed they do not. But it also seems to betray an expectation that this should happen. Imagine someone moving to Australia and saying ‘I have lived in Melbourne for a year and I’m still not married’. A mere 12 months hardly seems like a long time to wait before meeting someone you would consider marriage material. Or even just a proper boy or girlfriend as opposed to a casual date. But, in SL it seems, if you have gone 12 months since first entering the online world and you have still not found yourself in a romantic relationship you can imagine heading for marriage, you have been waiting a long time. If people generally expect romance to blossom earlier in SL, and generally act on this expectation, wouldn’t that explain the tendency in SL for romances to bloom more quickly?

AND FINALLY, THE MOVE TO REAL LIFE

This article has concentrated on romances conducted within online worlds. Sometimes, though, couples in such relationships agree to meet in the actual world.

At a Thinkers meeting, Halo Evermore commented, “the chances of the two meeting and being compatible in RL are very slim”. It is certainly true to say that close relationships have formed inworld between people who probably would not have exchanged a second glance had they first encountered one another in real life. It is also true to say that some relationships that moved offline have not survived the realization that the fantasy and reality do not match up. But, if it is true that personality differences get smaller the more time one spends inworld, maybe that means a longterm inworld relationship actually has a fairly decent chance of succeeding in real life? 

“I’m there at Heathrow”, recalled one person whose SL relationship made such a transition. “When I saw her come out I knew immediately it was her. I felt like she had been on a business trip but that we had been together our whole life”. 



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