Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

Lonely Dreamers

First things first.  Thanks to everyone who has given me feedback on this blog.  It not only gives me encouragement to keep yammering, it can also give me fodder for even more yammering. 

In my last entry, I touched on how easy it was to be deceitful online and how sometimes our cyber lives may not match up with the reality of our day to day existence.  That’s both a good and bad thing.  Bad because of the opportunities for cheating and also for the tendency of certain personality types to allow their fantasy lives to overtake them.  But there is a good side to it, too, and that’s today’s topic.

I tried to do a mental count of the number of marriages I know of that began as an online acquaintance.  There was one couple who lived 2,500 miles apart – he in California, she in New York.  They met online, became close and eventually arranged to meet offline.   When they adjourned to his hotel room they discovered they were both carrying sidearms (just in case the other one was an axe murderer, I suppose) – but instead of allowing it to frighten them, it’s become a standing joke about how they met.  He ended up moving to New York to be with her and they married.

Then there was the couple I’ll call “Jen and Bruce”.  Bruce lived in the U.S. midwest.  Jen was an Australian.  After a few months of online flirtation, Bruce flew to Sydney to meet her, they fell in love, and she now is a U.S. resident 9,200 miles later.

Most recently, however, is a couple I consider to be good friends – “W” for close to ten years, “L” for the year and a half I’ve been in Second Life.  W and L met at a Tringo game and hit it off.  There ensued what I would call a torrid affair in the most romantic, sweet sense of that phrase.   The problem was that he lived in England.  She was a Canadian.  Both of them opined to me that they felt the whole thing might be hopeless due to over 3,000 miles of ocean between them.  Auntie Cin urged them to meet, and meet soon – and today, she’s living in the UK.  They just had their firstborn, an adorable little girl.

The common thread in these three experiences is that people can meet online and form meaningful relationships.  Whether it goes offline or not depends on the couple and their personal situation, but it can happen.

I remember as a young girl, growing up in a small rural town, realizing that the entire student body of my  high school was barely enough to populate one lecture hall at a major college.  My circle of friends was thus small, my social experience stunted, the “eligible” guys very limited.  I often fantasized about a way to have that sort of contact with thousands or even millions of people — this was when the internet was still a Defense Department project and I’d never heard of it.  Little did I know that the very thing I dreamed of would one day become a reality.   The list of friendships I’ve made from all over the world is staggering when I think about it.   Is the quality of my feelings for any of these people less because we may never have met in person?  No.

About a month ago, my friend Wildefire Walcott crafted an amazing post over on Second Citizens’ forum.  It’s well worth a read.   An excerpt:

I have a make-believe home in a make-believe world, but in a year’s time I’ve felt real joy and love, real jealousy and heartbreak. After I say goodnight to my avatar friends I return to them in my sleep where they live and breathe like I do. When I awake from these dreams I’m sometimes disappointed to find it was all in my head, but I’m pleased to have had the thoughts at all. My memories are a part of me, a part of my life. Contrary to what the cynics will tell you, Second Life isn’t a substitute for real life- it’s a supplement.

In so few eloquent words, I think Wildefire has captured the essence of my childhood dream.  Not only are my social horizons opened beyond visual range, but my dreams are now deeper and richer with possibilities.   If anything, the reality of the internet today makes my youthful imaginings seem … well, unimaginative.

I may have made it sound in my last post like cyberspace was a dangerous place full of charade and treachery.  That’s like saying the Autobahn has a few potholes.  Of more interest to us should be the fact that human beings — we mammalian creatures who require community, affirmation and acceptance — now have a tool that provides us with those things in boundless amounts.   Three thousand miles or ten thousand miles are no longer a barrier to getting close.   Online, even though our facial expressions and body language may not be visible, our essential personality still comes through.  We are still ‘us’.  Given a time span equivalent to the growth of a 3D relationship (a few months), and usually you’re going to know everything important about your cyberbuddy or online lover.  I’ve had friends tell me that they were amazed on meeting a long-time online friend how much they matched the personality they’d seen in chat rooms.

I stand before you today as a witness to the power and reality of online relationships.   I had thought I was leading a pretty mundane, content existence until I joined Second Life.  There, I’ve had my world shaken to its core in amazing ways; my heart touched more deeply than I ever thought possible by one woman.  It hasn’t always been easy since we’ve agreed to keep things online out of respect for my offline situation.  But that hasn’t made the reality of our feelings any less powerful, nor dimmed the thrill of hearing her voice on Skype.  We give each other the support and affirmation everyone needs.  We give each other the assurance that we are not alone after all, even without physical contact.   To love and be loved begins inside us, in our minds and hearts.   That’s what is conveyed over the tiny copper wires of our computers and cable modems.  

I consider myself one of Wildefire’s “lonely dreamers”, and I’ve found my other home in Second Life.   Home, after all, is where the heart is.

December 13, 2006 Posted by | Second Life | 6 Comments

When Worlds Collide

There has been a flood of feedback coming to me both here and in SL  since I posted the Archan Story last week.  Most of it has been very positive.  Today, though, one comment was posted that I thought deserved some individual attention because it highlights an issue that I’ve studied and dealt with and worked around for years: that is, internet addiction and the conflict between real responsibilities and our fantasy lives.

Call it “internet addiction“, cyber-compulsion, or plain old immaturity but there are some complex roots at work in the lives of people who substitute online games and virtual worlds like Second Life for flesh-and-blood relationships.  The symptoms of internet addiction are eerily similar to those of alcohol, drugs, gambling or sexual addiction.

The blog comment in question comes from reader “Allie”, who wrote:

My husband has just recently left us a family (3) kids. He has been playing sencond life and it has litterally taken over his life. I am sure that you a good reason for providing these types of services. But did it ever occur to anyone that some people just might take it too far. I know he is member of your group and I sad to say that we have lost him to a sex filled virtual world.

My heart goes out to Allie.  That’s a sad and devastating thing to have happen to one’s life, especially to innocent children.   However, I want to point out that along with the freedom we have in our online world comes an equal share of personal responsibility.   We must always be prepared to accept the consequences of our actions and not push the blame off on something else, be it our partners or an online world or a sex club.  Allie, if you’re reading this, I’d like for you to consider the thoughts that follow.  Maybe I can offer some insight.

In my previous post I mentioned the Human Sexuality (HSX) community in Compuserve that I participated in years ago.  While there I saw my first examples  of online infidelity, lying, cheating, and philandering.  It was simply too easy to create a false identity for yourself and fool other people into thinking you’re something you’re not.  Good things happened too, make no mistake, but it was the misbehavior that got the headlines.

I will never forget the member I’ll call “Mike” who had seduced 3 women into falling for him at the same time.  He told them he was a CIA agent (you heard me) and thus had to maintain anonymity – right up until the point where he thought he could meet them offline and ‘get lucky’.  He arranged one weekend at a hotel in a major city where he could rendezvous with Woman A on Friday night, put her on a plane the next morning, then meet Woman B on Saturday night, rinse and repeat for Woman C on Sunday.  Questions of sexual stamina aside, he had it all timed to the minute.  But he didn’t count on two of the women knowing each other.

While Woman A was waiting for her plane home, she spotted Woman B in the airport.  They talked and it suddenly became obvious that Mike was up to no good.  They contacted Woman C and the three of them all returned home to give foxy ol’ Mike a thorough roasting on the boards.  His perfidy exposed, his lack of integrity stripped naked before the entire community, you would think that he would be contrite.  No, Mike began stonewalling and justifying.  The women snooped and found out that he was married.  They called his wife and told her the story, and Mike found himself faced with a nasty divorce.  Karma is, indeed, a bitch.  And she has a lawyer.

Mike was not your run-of-the-mill Casanova.  There was something driving him that sought adulation, love, affection – even if shallow and transitory – over the real three-dimensional reality of his wife.   Consciously or unconciously, he was willing to risk everything to get that temporary ‘fix’ of assurance and validation.  The risk itself was even part of the reward – most gambling and sex addicts will tell you that the ritual has its own reinforcement to the user.

I don’t want it to sound as though I’m judging Allie’s husband as an addict.  That’s a call only he can make for himself.  And to be fair, I am not a psychologist.  I have had experience with addicts. I’ve also had experience with narcissists who fit the profile of someone who will do almost anything to achieve self-gratification.   The bottom line to this isn’t so much what Allie’s husband is, it’s the fact that online worlds can be a very seductive, alluring place for people whose real lives are less than satisfying or fulfilling.  If they don’t have good boundaries or find themselves feeling lonely,  they become vulnerable to being sucked into an online black hole.  Those people who are unable to separate fantasy from reality are particularly susceptible to falling victim — of being like Mike and sacrificing a real wife for the illusion of three women who probably would never feel for him the same way his wife felt.

As much as I feel badly for Allie and her children and wish her husband was a more responsible adult, I cannot honestly blame places like Archan for the problem.  Thousands of men (and women) engage in chat room romances and have for years.   It can even happen in places like World of Warcraft.  Typically, the combination of people’s fantasy projections onto others, coupled with some kind of unhappiness or dissatisfaction at home sets the stage for these tragedies.   One statistic I found claims that one third of divorces are caused by online affairs.  

The solution is not to outlaw cyberspace or to shut down places like Archan.  The solution is to be mature adults and think about how our actions will hurt the people we love before we act.  And if we find ourselves compelled to do something over and over, even after we realize how risky and harmful it may be, maybe it’s time to seek help.

None of these words will salvage Allie’s situation, I know.  I’m sorry that I have nothing more to offer but words.  Maybe what I can offer, however, is a little bit of awareness for others out there. 

Nothing you ever do is without consequences and if you are not honest about your situation when you’re online,  you are guilty of deceit.   You are sacrificing your personal integrity for a quick thrill.  Or, as in the case of Allie’s husband, you are risking your marriage and the futures of your children for the transitory pleasure of talking dirty to someone who may or may not even be a woman.  You are grasping at ghosts when you have something real and precious right there next to you.  

Ask yourself whether it’s worth it.  Ask yourself what you’ll tell your kids when your partner finds out you’ve been shacking up with a cartoon blonde in a make-believe world instead of making love to him or her.    In the end, you’re the one who has to live with themselves.  And when the virtual world goes down, as they all do eventually, maybe you’ll finally realize what you gave up for a temporary thrill.

December 5, 2006 Posted by | Second Life | Leave a comment