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Andrew's Final Research Project

Page history last edited by Andrew Conley 15 years, 4 months ago

                                                                         Love in Second Life


    Author and Second Life resident, Mark Meadows, recalls “the night of the dance” in his book, I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. The party he attended was not a house party in the conventional sense. Rather, it was hosted in Second Life, the multi-player, open-ended virtual world in which humans assume the role of an avatar for varied purposes, such as business, entertainment, and companionship. At this particular virtual gathering, some twenty avatars congregated in a Second Life house for a night of virtual dancing, drinking, and entertainment. Meadows recalls the flashing lights, the tiny virtual cigarettes, and the highlight of his night; observing DJ Korya. He described DJ Korya as “sexy as a mink” and admired her fun loving “personality” on display while she energetically ran the party (Meadows 56). Initially, Meadows was confused by his unusual and powerful attraction to an avatar. Retrospectively he concluded that this attraction was founded on the “psychological symbols” that made Second Life feel both real and fantasy at the same time (56). The flashing lights, the dance moves, the conversations: they all came together to create an emotional reaction that Meadows did not think possible in a virtual world (Meadows 55).

     Meadow’s conclusion about “psychological symbols” does not fully explain how and why romances occur in Second Life. He ignores how the availability of information and nature of communication in virtual worlds both stimulate the imaginative faculties of users. Second Life romances are based upon idealized visions users hold about their partner, that is the person behind the avatar. I will explain how these fantasy-based relationships, paradoxically, allow for self-disclosure to occur and for intimacy to develop despite the common lack of physical proximity. Additionally, I will offer insights in to what Second Life relationships offer that real life relationships do not why people are attracted to them. 


The Virtual Environment


    Catherine Smith, the marketing director for Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, explains: “Second Life is a social environment, it’s a creative playground, a place to try new things risk free” (qtd. in Machalinski, McConnon, Nicholson 3). Second Life allows people to live alternate lives unbounded by the restrictions of reality and to do most things humans do (See figure A). For some people, Second Life provides a fun way to stay in touch with people they know. Others utilize Second Life as a way to connect with like-minded individuals (Barnes 84). The same motives apply for romance seekers in Second Life. Some couples have expanded the boundaries of their relationships in to the virtual world while others go in world to Second Life in pursuit of other singles.

    People turn to Second Life when it becomes difficult to build relationships in the physical world. Those who experience social reticence or are frustrated with the lack of desirable social outlets often turn to the Internet and programs like Second Life as an unconventional alternative. Just as in real life, there are varying levels of relationship commitments in Second Life; everything from avatars who casually date to those who are virtually married. These virtual relationships are prevalent because the “rules of the game” are different in virtual worlds. The social pressures of face-to-face relationships dissolve and the human imagination becomes the dominant force in the development of relationships (Barnes 109).


Figure A: Avatars can do most things humans do, like going to bars and meeting new "people."


Online Imagination


      It is first important to understand how Second Life stimulates the imagination in order to understand why virtual, romantic relationships are so common. The information couples know about each other in Second Life primarily comes from what their partner chooses to share in conversation. Additional personal details can be learned by looking at an avatar’s profile. Information given in the profile of an avatar is primarily about Second Life interests, associated groups, favorite places, and a small blurb about the person’s first life. Understandably, users typically focus on positive aspects in the information they provide (Ben-Ze’ev 64). Imagination, essential to Second Life relationships, fills in gaps where information is not given (Ben-Ze’ev 64). Couples fantasize, to some degree, about their partner’s physical appearance, thoughts, and emotions in order to generate affection. It is important to understand that residents of Second Life fall in love with neither the person nor the avatar entirely, but an idealized combination of the two that is constructed through imaginative faculties.

    A fundamental truth that allows virtual relationships to develop is the subconscious acknowledgment that there is a human behind the avatar. Similar to the way many people create avatars in idealized images of themselves, they hold idealized visions of the person behind the avatar with whom they are romantically involved. Author Aaron Ben-Ze’ev remarked that emotions come “not only [from] what is and will be experienced, but also [from] all that could be or that one wishes will be experienced” (61).  Second Life couples are undoubtedly attracted to particular personality traits they find in one another. Their emotional attraction is intensified because they must imagine or fantasize the “unknowns” about their partner (See figure B).

    Second Life users are, however, capable of sharing a considerable amount of information, truthful or otherwise, with one another online through various means.  Residents can instant message and voice chat in addition to communicating with their avatar’s body language, facial expressions, and animations (White). Instant messaging is the dominant mode of communication. Often these text-based conversations lack the depth and sophistication of face-to-face conversations. A person’s imaginative faculties compensate for “the lack of social and sensory [conversational] cues” (Gwinnell xix) (See figure C). This allows people to “develop powerful fantasies” about other Second Life users (Gwinnell xix).

    The act of instant messaging and sharing thoughts with “strangers” allows for greater self-exploration because people open up to one another in a “non-threatening way” (Gwinnell 94). The act of writing has long been used to express emotions and to gather thoughts. President Abraham Lincoln often wrote letters addressed to certain people without the intent of mailing them as a way to collect his thoughts (Donald 447). Author, Esther Gwinnell noted, “Anne Frank wrote in her diary… to a fictional character… so that she could imagine an emotional connection” (10).  Second Life should be looked at as an integral element in the evolution of writing for emotional purposes. This online platform enables people to ‘connect’ and have relationships that are not bounded by the restraints of ‘reality.’

    These fantasies and affections allow the process of self-disclosure to occur more rapidly in Second Life than they do in real life. “Small talk,” for the most part, is eliminated because conversations are started and dropped so frequently that people get right to the point and talk about issues that matter to them. Many residents are more comfortable conversing without the worries of physical presentation, which hastens the process of self-disclosure. One resident of Second Life remarked that the style and pace of conversations made her feel as if she were making friends in “hyperdrive” (qtd. in Barnes 102). 

    Being able to express oneself to a Second Life partner may also increase one’s self-confidence. Firstly, the fear of inadequacy or being unsuited for a partner is less than in real life because of the element of anonymity. These relationships, consequently, come about more easily. The resulting feelings of being “valued” and “cherished” by an “online partner” are prevalent in Second Life relationships (Gwinnell 75).


Figure B: The only things couples "know" about each other is what they choose to reveal.


Figure C: Real world conversational cues are virtually eliminated because the bodily movements of avatars are stiff and robotic.


The Paradoxical Nature of Second Life Relationships


    Author Aaron Ben-Ze’ev examines the paradoxical nature of communication, attachment, intimacy, and anonymity of Second Life romantic relationships in his book, Love Online: Emotions on the Internet. His conclusions shed light on how and why couples hold such strong feelings for each other despite their anonymity and physical separation.

    In his writings, Ben-Ze’ev noted how Second Life conversations are “lean” and “rich” simultaneously evidenced by the “lack of visual and physical context” (30). This deficiency hinders one’s ability to perceive when their partner is tired, stressed, or anxious, for example (Ben-Ze’ev 30). In order to compensate, couples pay close attention to what their partner says and are frequently forced to “read between the lines” to ascertain their partner’s feelings. Thus, conversations are taken for granted less in Second Life than they are in real life (Ben-Ze’ev 33).

    Ben-Ze’ev also analyzes how the dynamics of virtual worlds allow for intimacy to develop despite the physical separation of partners. He notes how humans normally characterize intimate relationships as a physical closeness, but the prevailing intimacy in Second Life is, what he calls, “detached attachment.” Ben-Ze’ev explains how, previously, humans never had access to the complex mediums of communication that are offered in Second Life and that the bonds and relationships that have demonstrably been formed in the virtual world have redefined intimacy (27).

    Part of the reason avatar couples feel “attached,” Ben-Ze’ev explains, is because the internet renders physical location irrelevant (See figure D). Second Life couples can be “together” at any time or location as long as they have Internet access. Author Tom Boellstorff remarked, “the person is not miles away from you [in Second Life], only milliseconds” (94). While couples have “space” in their first lives, they become “immediate in a temporal sense” when they enter the virtual world (Ben-Ze’ev 27).

    Second Life residents can remain partially or completely anonymous behind the mask of an avatar (See figure E). Ben-Ze’ev writes, “paradoxically, anonymity allows intense intimacy to develop in a very short time” (36). People are more inclined to reveal their hopes, secrets, and fears because anonymity gives them a sense of security. Fantasies that people have, but are hesitant to share for fear of other peoples’ reactions, are more easily shared in Second Life. Ben-Ze’ev also observed that “it is less likely that an online partner will be insulted by fantasies, as the whole relationship consists of fantasies” (35). Should the person be offended, or the person disclosing information feel uncomfortable, the conversation can easily be terminated and the anonymity of the people can be preserved.


Figure D: A couple could meet up at Dance Island anytime they desire, regardless of time or physical location.


Figure E: Little does the avatar I am talking with know that a 19-year-old male is behind this beautiful, female avatar.


Real Love in a Virtual World


    So far, I have explained how the virtual environment of Second Life is conducive to the development of relationships. In the remainder of the paper I will explore why people are attracted to Second Life romances as opposed to real life romances. While there is not a chief motive that brings romance seekers to Second Life, there are several theories as to why certain people find online love more satisfying than real world love. Author Brian White offers perspective about online love that is particularly applicable to Second Life through his “True Self,” “Self Deception,” and “Learning to be Loved” theories. Each one offers insights in to why love can come so easily for people in virtual worlds.

    White explains his “True Self” theory by writing, “In Second Life, we are stripped of many biases and prejudices that we have in Real Life based on someone’s physical appearance” (101). The characteristics of physical appearance, such as race, gender, beauty, and ethnicity, are “obvious and immediately visible in real life,” but they are unknown and ultimately irrelevant in the virtual world of Second Life (Gwinnell 27). Couples, thus, converse with one another to learn about each other’s “true self.” Author Esther Gwinnell notes that “the ability to reveal the innermost self” is “an emotional… intimacy” that some people prefer to sexual intimacy (94).

    With his “Self Deception” theory, White argues that the less Second Life partners know about each other, the more intense the intimacy (101). He reasons that residents of Second Life believe more easily that others are both who and what we want them to be. He adds that the fewer things coupes know about each other, the easier it is fantasize and, consequently, to fall in love (101). The “Self Deception” theory does not assume that residents consciously deceive themselves, but that the lack of knowledge of one’s partner causes him or her to create an idealized illusion of their partner.

    The “Learning to be Loved” theory combines the previous two theories. White argues that residents of Second Life discover whether or not they have found their “true” love more quickly because self-disclosure comes much easier in world (102). People, in general, yearn to be loved with all their shortcomings and imperfections, and because residents can take comfort in anonymity, they are more likely to be up front with their partner.

    Those users who do find their “soul mate” in Second Life often claim that Second Life relationships are easier to commit to than those in the real world. Second Life relationships are more private because they only “exist” when partners are sitting at a computer, assuming the couple does not meet in real life. No relationship approval is necessary, or even possible, from friends and family when the relationship is kept secretive and within the bounds of the virtual world.

    One resident asserts that Second Life love is more “true” because “in a virtual environment, [residents] get to know the person before [they] can judge their physical appearance” (qtd. in Boellstorff 170). This implies that “true” love is found and measured only by an attraction to one’s personality. Author Mark Meadows believes that Second Life love is not “true” because it is based on fantasy (See figure F). He writes that affection is only generated through “layers of fiction” (Meadows 55). Both these opinions are ultimately unfounded. The line between “real” and “unreal” has progressively been blurred by the development of new forms of digital communication. Virtual worlds are merely the latest mediums in a long line of technological advancements that includes everything from telegraphs, to cell phones, to Second Life. What qualifies as “real” is not universally agreed upon. A truth that thousands of avatars will support is that affectionate feelings are certainly generated in Second Life. 

    Recently, the British newspaper, The Guardian, published an article about a couple that was married in both the real world and in Second Life. The wife made news by filing for divorce in real life when she caught her husband having, what she perceived to be, affectionate relations with another avatar in Second Life. She acknowledged that although the “affair” took place in a virtual world, the emotions “existed entirely in the real world” and that it “hurts just as much” (Morris). She understood that many people thought her situation “bizarre,” but she justified her actions by adding, “people find love in lots of different ways” (Morris). People hold different perceptions of “reality” and depending on how “real” they perceive an environment or program to be, the emotions they feel will vary in intensity (Ben-Ze’ev 67). 


Figure F: Meadows finds that fantasy, such as Donnatello's ability to fly, compromises his ability to generate genuine affections.




    Author Mark Meadows never got DJ Korya’s real name (Meadows 56). He later found out, though, that she had been living with real life friends of his who took her in after she “ran away from an abusive family life” (Meadows 56). He learned that she had been living in the streets scrapping money together for some time. She would log in to Second Life from “various coffee shops and internet cafes” whenever she could find time (Meadows 56). “As for her avatar,” Meadows remarked, “something about… her… seemed just right” (Meadows 56). The avatar DJ Korya truly gave her a ‘Second Life.’

    Millions of people have already made the migration to virtual worlds and many more soon will as this technology becomes more mainstream and accessible. Whether people spend the majority of their time in virtual worlds or go there only for leisure remains to be seen.  An undeniable truth is that Second Life relationships fill an emotional void for its users.  As the internet and Second Life become more ubiquitous in everyday life, the lines between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ relationships will become increasingly blurred.  For many, Second Life offers a first opportunity to engage in meaningful and emotionally ‘real’ relationships.  The availability of information and the nature of communication in Second Life provide an environment that allows emotional relationships to develop in a manner that is unbounded by restraints found in the ‘real’ world.







                                                         Works Cited


Baker, Andrea J. et. al., eds. Online Matchmaking. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.



Barak, Azy, ed. Psychological Aspects of Cyberspace: theory, research, applications. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.



Barnes, Susan B. Online Connections: Internet Interpersonal Relationships. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 2001.



Ben-Ze’ev, Aaron. Love Online: Emotions on the Internet. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.



Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.



Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1995.



Galician, Mary-Lou and Debra L. Merskin, eds. Critical Thinking About Sex, Love, and Romance in the Mass Media. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2007.



Gwinnell, Esther. Online Seductions: Falling in Love with Strangers on the Internet. New York: Kodansha America, 1998.



Machalinski, Anne, et. al., eds. “The Digital Lover: Dating and Mating in Second Life.“ The Science of Sex. 1-4.



Meadows, Mark Stephens. I, Avatar: The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. Berkley: New Riders, 2008.



Morris, Steven. “Second Life Affair Leads to Real Life Divorce.” The Guardian. 13 Nov. 2008



Rosen, Larry D. Me, MySpace, and I: Parenting the Net Generation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.



White, Brian A. Second Life: A Guide to Your Online World. Indianapolis: Que Publishing, 2008.





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