Infidelity 2.0: Virtual Reality, or Just Reality?
Since the early days of Internet-based communities and chat rooms, individuals found that they could invent new online personas for themselves. Unencumbered by real-world details like physical appearance, social status, and their back balance, they could “be” themselves and interact with others doing the same thing. In most cases, the online relationships that developed were simply friendships, sometimes involving harmless flirtation; occasionally, more serious romantic relationships developed, leading to a sort of online addiction and eventual in-person meetings and affairs. In the early days of the Internet, the press frequently ran stories about a spouse who left home to be with someone met in a chat room. Eventually, the novelty of these stories wore off (I’m sure in the early days of telephone service someone ran a story, “Man uses telephone to meet secretly with lover”), and they disappeared. Now, Alexandra Alter of the Wall Street Journal has written an interesting story that illustrates the new form of online infidelity, and which raises the bigger question of how “real” online communities like Second Life can be. In Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?, Alter chronicles a fascinating example of an online relationship that seems at least as real as the physical-world relationships of the participants.
The story seems simple enough: a married guy spends a lot of time online, meets a like-minded woman, and spends a lot of time interacting with her. This alienates the real wife. That may sound like the traditional “Internet lover” story, but in this case the online relationship is between two avatars, one controlled by the married guy and one by the “other woman.” While the avatars bear some resemblances to their real-life controllers, they certainly are different in many ways. And, as is possible in the online world of Second Life, a lot more is going on than two people chatting. They have businesses and property in Second Life; the WSJ article describes how Dutch Hoorenbeek, the avatar controlled by Ric Hoogestraat (the real-life married guy) spent a day building a virtual coffee shop in a virtual shopping mall he owns, presumably where other avatars can hang out and sip virtual lattes. Hoogestraat and his virtual paramour got “married” in Second Life, and share a virtual house. The love triangle has become a much more complex geometric shape in virtual reality.
The “Other Avatar”
Unlike many Internet love stories, Hoogestraat has never met Janet Spielman, the woman who controls Tenaj Jackalope (the other woman, or would it be the “other avatar”?) and apparently has no plans to do so. Hoogestraat’s wife Sue, however, sees little distinction. Though Hoogestraat insists that his online activity is “just a game,” the fact that he spends most of his waking hours online, many of them with Tenaj, makes the relationship as troublesome as if he were sneaking out a few nights a week – perhaps moreso.
This one example is illustrative of the complex world we are entering. Second Life has its own currency, property ownership, and other real-world characteristics. Indeed, many entrepreneurs have flourishing businesses and make both Second Life and real dollar income from their activities. Hoogestraat is one of those, operating a shopping mall and a strip club, as well as designing and selling bikinis and lingerie. He upgraded his own avatar with purchases from others: defined stomach muscles and hair that moves more naturally.
Is it any wonder that Hoogestraat would prefer his virtual-reality self to the daily grind? In real life, Hoogestrat is 53 and, to put it politely, won’t be gracing the cover of GQ anytime soon. He toils as a call center rep for $14 per hour, and has suffered from health problems. Is it any wonder that he prefers the virtual world of Second Life, where he’s a young, well-muscled, financially successful entrepreneur who lives with a hot redhead in a three story waterfront home and operates a beach club, a strip club, and designs bikinis for a living?
Should we dismiss Second Life and other online communities as a fantasy for needy losers? I think not. While certainly online communities will have appeal for some individuals who either can’t cope with real life or simply find it easier to interact with avatars than humans, many successful, socially gregarious people participate as well. While these individuals are less likely to be addicted or abandon real-life relationships in favor of virtual ones, they may find some aspects of online communities hard to duplicate in real life. Individuals with special interests – hobbies, health issues, technical issues, and so on – may be unable to find others with those interests in their local community. Anonymity can be important, too. A tax accountant can’t very well call up a competitor for advice on a complex topic, but might not hesitate to discuss it with fellow tax accountants from other areas of the country. And even in a community like Second Life, real people are making real money using their creativity and business skills to sell products and services to others.
The bigger question is whether many normal and successful people will be seduced into a sort of online addiction. As popular as Second Life is, it’s far from true virtual reality. It’s slow, avatars are cartoonish, and still requires considerable suspension of disbelief on the part of the user. As virtual worlds get better, faster, and more realistic, I think their seductive power will increase. I’m not talking about romantic seduction, though that will certainly happen from time to time. Rather, more people will simply find a reality that they can control more appealing than the reality around them, with bills, car pools, screaming kids, and so on. Of course, the more involved one gets in a virtual reality, the more mundane it may become. The WSJ article describes the “work day” for Hoogestraat in Second Life: evicting tenants who didn’t pay rent, recruiting new ones, doing virtual construction work, even the tedious decorating of individual virtual coffee mugs. At some point, that’s going to seem a lot like real work. Will it be necessary to escape to a second virtual world with fewer responsibilities?