Second Life's Losers

People who fall in love with online avatars. Maybe not so weird.

By Shannon Rupp 28 Jan 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor.

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Beauty is pixels deep.

When old media turns the lens on new media the results are rarely flattering for the subject, and such is the case with The Fifth's Estate's look at the virtual reality game Second Life.

The CBC documentary Strangers in Paradise, which airs Wednesday, Jan. 28 at 9 p.m., tells the tale of a quartet of SL "residents" who fall in love with other players in the game, and ditch their real life spouses.

Although Second Life is billed as a role-playing game, that's a bit of a misnomer -- it's more of an old-fashioned chat room with graphics. Really graphic graphics. Every resident is issued an avatar -- a virtual reality representation of himself -- and that av could be anything, or either sex. Unlike role-playing games such as World of Warcraft, where everyone is an elf or troll engaged in Tolkien-inspired adventures, SL is exactly as the name implies -- a chance at a Second Life. People can be vampires, elves, or pirates, but the majority opt to become impossibly beautiful projections of their inner selves who live in an idealized ordinary world. They shop, dance, go skiing, buy houses, furnish them, and many fall in love.

The whole aesthetic of SL might be described as a 1980s version of "hot," right down to the skimpy Madonna-wannabe fashions of yester-year. Which might explain why the majority of SL's 1.4 million denizens are oldsters reliving their Journey-loving youth and escaping their mundane RL existence.

Two of the doc's subjects, Tenaj Jackalope and Dutch Hoorenbeek, are among SL's most famous residents courtesy of their SL marriage. Not that weddings are unusual; about 30,000 "partnerings" have taken place there. But as the doc relates, Dutch and Ten are rare in that they were named in the divorce proceedings -- or rather their Meat Avatars Ric Hoogestraat and Janet Spielman were -- when Dutch's real life wife Sue caught their avs inflagrante delicto.

Virtually absent

Sue grew tired of the 17-hour days Ric spent in front of the computer living large as biker-businessman Dutch, with his wife Ten, on their private island (costing about US$500). Soon headlines proclaimed Sue the first North American woman to get a divorce over virtual adultery. Before long, Spielman, a 38-year-old divorced mom from Calgary, gave up custody of her two children and left to make her fantasy of life as a biker-babe on the back of Dutch's hog a reality.

The doc also tells the tale of Caroline, a middle-aged wife and mother of four who locked her husband out of the bedroom to spend 14-hour days online with her cyber-lover of 10 months. Her kids were neglected and the house was in chaos around her, as the Pennsylvania mom spent day and night with a tattooed-and-pierced tough guy from England, named Elliot. Eventually she heads to London to visit him.

To say these players are people living lives of quiet desperation is to belabor the obvious. They are the embodiment of mundane from their dull jobs to their silly hobby. Their hard-bodied digital avs are a striking contrast with the worn, saggy middle-aged bodies they inhabit in real life. The film gives us a picture of human beings at their most pathetic, and the producers revel in making them look ridiculous. The script emphasizes over and over again that these women fell in love with "cartoon avatars." The interviews reveal individuals entirely lacking in self-awareness. They're self-centred, self-obsessed sad-sacks.

But of course, they didn't fall in love with avs. The gamers fell in love with the mind behind the avatars. Unfortunately, that's never explored. The filmmakers don't examine the phenomenon beyond calling their subjects "addicted."


I suspect there's an explanation for their bizarre behaviour to be found in the research by psychology professor Bjarne M. Holmes of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. He warns of the impact rom-coms have: the sort of magical thinking they celebrate destroys real life relationships and creates dangerous expectations. According to his research, there's a direct correlation between consuming and enjoying rom-coms and believing such destructive nonsense as your partner should be your soulmate, read your mind, know your every want and need, that you were fated to meet, and that a perfect relationship happens instantly and continues indefinitely. (Surprisingly, there are no docs implying that Kate Hudson should be banned from making yet another wretched ode to the magic of true love -- but that's a lobby I could get behind.)

U.K. media have dubbed Holmes findings "The Notting Hill Effect," but as I watched Strangers in Paradise, I thought it was more of a "You've Got Mail Syndrome." Essentially, our Second Lifers live romances not unlike the one Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan go through in the 1998 film, where they meet and fall in love in a chat room. They seduce each other with ideas, images, and a glimpse of a like-minded soul. Eventually they try to meet in real life.

But here's the catch: both are living with other people and sneaking around to connect with their online amours. It's emotional adultery. And they're upping the ante to engage in physical adultery when a twist of fate intervenes and prevents them going down that tawdry road.

Hollywood plays these stories for sweet comedy and they're squeaky clean -- Meg and Tom never had porned-up-avs doing it on screen. But their illicit love does break up their existing relationships, something conveniently glossed-over by the producers. They invoke the myths to excuse our star-crossed lovers: it's fate, they're meant for each other; and "true love" conquers all. To do anything other than follow one's heart is to be dismissed as a cynic.

It's obvious these films resonate with our SLers, since they use terms like "soulmate" without irony. Janet/Ten actually invokes that wretched line from Jerry Maguire: "Well, not to quote a movie," she begins, "but he completes me."

Interactive Harlequin

While the filmmakers blame the game, I kept thinking SL looks a lot like Hollywood movie and television fantasies, only it's interactive. Just think of those hot babes-in-latex slaying vampires and werewolves, and you'll have the aesthetic of this virtual world. Or perhaps it's an interactive Harlequin on the romantic beach of some Sims City, or an interactive porn site in the sim site based on Amsterdam's red light district? As the game has a voice chat option, you just know phone sex is inevitable...

So the doc needs to be taken with a grain of salt as far as the seductive powers of Second Life itself go -- throw people together and some of them are going to fall in love and do the wild thing. Essentially, SL is just an instant messaging platform and as long as we've been able to put pen to paper, there have been people seduced by the soul reflected in another's words. You've Got Mail was a remake of a 1940 film, Little Shop Around the Corner, about snail mail pen pals. Until the telephone arrived, love letters were the medium of choice for seducing distant lovers, including those who had never met.

But I watched the doc with a friend who works in the computer gaming industry and he had a different take on Second Life: "It's the intertubes, it's anonymous, and those avs are hot -- what else would you expect to happen?"

Strangers in Paradise airs again on Sunday at 11 p.m.

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