The everyday blog of Richard Bartle.
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3:43pm on Thursday, 31st January, 2008:
I watched the Wonderland documentary on love in (and out of) Second Life yesterday, conveniently on BBC2 straight after the excellent Torchwood as it was.
Well, it was actually two stories. One was about a couple who met in Second Life and married in real life. This, being the "happy ending" thread, did not feature as much as the "main" story about a relationship under stress because of Second Life. Basically, it followed the unfolding tale of a married couple, the female half of which was conducting an affair in SL right under the nose of her husband and children. She seemed oblivious to the effect this was having on the latter, and unacknowledging of the uxoriousness of her husband — actually the only thing that was keeping the family together. She was American; the object of her affection, who seemed to have no qualms about breaking up someone else's family, was British. Eventually, he brought their relationship to an end, so when they did finally meet in real life the sparks didn't fly. At the end of the show, we were told she was trying to patch things up with her husband (although because they documentary told us SL had 4 million residents, whereas it's over three times this many as I write this, presumably everything was filmed some time go so the jury is no longer out).
Over the years, I've seen this kind of thing happen myself, many times. I've seen real-life weddings as a result of virtual-world romances, and I've seen real-life divorces, too. The weddings are outnumbered by the divorces by a ratio somewhere between five and ten to one. The reasons don't change a great deal, though, and are typically of one of the following kinds:
1) One partner plays the virtual world, in so doing consuming a great deal of their free time, and the other partner feels neglected. If the non-player can hold on for 18 months without either leaving home or having an affair, then the player will come out of it and things will return to normal. The cause of the problem here is basically that the non-player doesn't understand what the player is doing or why. If it was something "normal", such as going down to the pub every night is in some places, then there wouldn't be an issue. Lots of people who are happily married nevertheless like to have some time to themselves. It's the fact that the non-player doesn't understand (or they misunderstand) what's going on that's at the heart of the break-up. I expect that a generation down the line, time spent playing games will be better understood as a social activity, and people won't be any more worried by it than they would if their partner were to drop in to the gym after work or whatever.
2) One partner plays the virtual world, and the magnifying of emotions they experience plus the degree of anonymity they have leads to their having an affair. I've watched these unfold, and although they can be very intense for about a month they then start to slide. The parties will often find other online lovers to try to recapture the feeling, so it's not entirely a case of "wait a couple of months and you'll get your wife back", but it can be close to that. Nevertheless, there's a trust issue here. Sure, your spouse hasn't had a physical affair with someone else, but a non-physical affair is still an affair. What the aggrieved partner does depends on the extent to which they understand this, with (as last night's TV programme showed) the current tendency being to err on the side of forgiveness.I expect that as more people come to understand what virtual worlds are, then the more this kind of activity is likely to lead to marriage break-ups (although it can also strengthen marriages if the philanderer comes to believe that the affair was a mistake).
3) The marriage is in trouble anyway, and the virtual world is just a catalyst that brings on what was always inevitable. You can get a happy ending out of this, when two people meet each other virtually and leave existing unfulfilling relationships to start anew, but even so it's not without side-effects. Yes, the Wonderland episode showed a couple who were very happy as a result of meeting in SL, but that one marriage still caused two divorces. If it didn't happen online, it would happen at work, at social events, outside school or wherever. It always has, and it always will; virtual worlds just give another path to meet the right person.
Overall, as a 40-minute documentary Wonderland wasn't bad, at least insofar its non-demonising of virtual worlds goes. Second Life, while looking good when avatars weren't called upon to do anything, did look a bit ropey when animation was involved. Even non-gamers can see something is amiss when walking down stairs looks like walking on a flat surface, which in turn would look better if the legs moved commensurate with passage across the ground. As it is, even my (non-gamer) wife thought it was a bit like a badly-animated cartoon.
Still, overall I think both SL and BBC2 came out of it rather well. Also, as a big plus for the Prime Minister, no knives were featured.
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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (firstname.lastname@example.org).