Is Second Life really just a game?

Through a recent post by Gwyneth Llewelyn, I once again came across the topic of how we perceive and treat Second Life. Gwyn uses a series of interviews by Aria E Appleford as her starting point, but I believe I’ve seen this pattern again in different manifestations. Whereas Aria reached out and interviewed former Second Life residents that gave up on virtual worlds, I’ve seen such people’s reactions to various situations on their SL profiles and/or their SL-related blogs – profile descriptions, profile picks and blog posts they made just before they ragequit SL.

The interviews’ topic was the interviewees’ involvement in SL, what they did, why they stayed in SL for so long and, finally, why they left. An interesting trend that surfaced in the first two interviews was that both were from content creators who had a “vision” about what they wanted to do in SL and a desire to meet like-minded people. This didn’t exactly work out as they had planned it.

In both cases, the reason was drama. Or, to be more precise, sex-related drama. Interestingly, for both interviewees, drama is defined as an emotional frustration caused by power struggles and manipulations in sexual relationships. Another interesting point is that they both begin with the assumption that “Second Life is just a GAME” – and at the same time they explain that neither of them was into any sort of role-playing. Instead, they made sure their avatars’ appearance was as close as possible to their real life appearance and they didn’t “pretend” to be somebody else – or even “pretend” to be a different version of themselves, emphasising on certain aspects of their RL personalities that could not be expressed easily in RL. They weren’t in SL to indulge in fantasies or escapism. They took everything seriously, with one notable exception: SL itself, which, to them, was not “serious”, but “only a game”.

Addicted to SL

Such a view may seem in contradiction with itself and I can understand why any reader would see it that way. Anyway, as the interviews roll on, it becomes evident that, at some point, they struggled with addiction. It’s not clear what they found addictive about SL, but after the fact they looked back at their experience as an addiction and leaving SL was – to them – an escape from this addiction; all of this was not unlike the way an alcoholic looks back at his former, drunken life with disgust, and from a safe distance.

So far, my findings are pretty much identical to Gwyn’s. And I’ll agree with her on another point she makes, which I will quote verbatim:

Addictions have many causes, most being psychological, although many naturally have physical causes (i.e. drug addiction). Pleasure is also addictive — and so is lust, passion, and a lot of strong emotions. Adrenaline is addictive. And so is power, wealth, and the ability to control and manipulate others. So we’re not sure what exactly made SL so addictive for them, but one thing is clear: whatever they found in SL that is so addictive, they don’t experience “in the real world”. And they warn future users not to join SL, “because it’s so addictive” — but they don’t say why.

The fact that neither will say what made SL so addictive to them only makes these two cases lend themselves well to conjecture w.r.t. the reasons for this addiction. Could it be sex? Both interviewees mention it, so we could easily suppose that sex and all those emotions that come with it (pleasure, power, control – and so much more) may have contributed to their addiction. After all, pleasure, power and control are addictive. Yet, they are both adamant that they were not looking for extra-marital affairs, even though they admit that they neglected their families – perhaps spending endless hours on SL (whether this time was spent working or otherwise) contributed to this neglection, though? The most interesting part of their pattern, though, is that they don’t think other avatars are real.

Just a game?

This is where it gets interesting. Both of them keep talking about how SL is not real and how it’s “just a game“. If only I had a L$ for every single time I’ve heard the “it’s not real, SL is just a game” motto being put forward, I swear I’d be richer than Anshe Chung. This motto is a staple amongst the following categories of people:

  • Trolls and cyberbullies who think it’s OK to treat others like crap in-world
  • SL’s detractors
  • People who hide from themselves and try to protect themselves and their feelings from the “risk” of actually interacting and being involved with other people.

Putting the first two categories aside, the people that belong to the last one, in their attempt to protect themselves end up (inadvertently?) objectifying other people. To them, the avatars around them are not graphical representations of real, breathing human beings with feelings, desires, fears etc. Gwyn puts it very succinctly:

[T]hey have a very solipsistic attitude towards the virtual world: “everything (and everyone) is fake, SL is just a game, everybody is playing a game, except me, I‘m real, I’m not pretending, I’m not role-playing”.

Gwyn says that this attitude of theirs is probably a form of defence, although I’m pretty certain of it. What can this attitude be summed up as? Well, they’re basically telling us that they don’t want to deal with their feelings about other people in SL for fear of getting hurt. So, to protect themselves from this hurt, they created an alternate reality for themselves within SL; in this alternate reality there are no “real humans” in SL except for themselves. So, to them, SL is reduced to being a mere setting for fantasy role-play, from which they escaped.

And after this great escape of theirs, what did they do? Where did they go?

They went to Facebook, where they talk (and even flirt) with complete strangers, with people they’ve never met, because these people “are real” and “are not pretending”. Excuse me while I raise an eyebrow in disbelief (and a little dismay).

Now, I won’t bash these two people for the suffering they went through. Their interviews make it perfectly clear that their experience in SL was devastating and left them emotionally wrecked. What they say in their interviews suggests that their sexual relationships within SL (be they with business associates, friends or other partners) had a strong competitive edge w.r.t. power and with this came jealousy, manipulation, deception and, yes, power struggles – a game of who’s going to have the upper hand in the relationship. Obviously, this suffering lasted for quite a while, causing serious emotional distress and making their SL existence a complete mess. This suffering was real and we can only feel compassion for them, albeit certain fallacies in their thinking, both while they were involved in SL and after they left, need to be pointed out.

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7 thoughts on “Is Second Life really just a game?

  1. Another post that shows most of Sl users thoughs, at least mine, in a way i would never be able to do, bravo!

  2. Most excellent post, which I just managed to read to the end today (sorry!). Needless to say, I totally agree with you, and perhaps I was a bit too nice by not being very assertive with my own suggestions — saying “maybe” or “perhaps” instead of “no, it’s really like that!”

    I didn’t mean that objectification as part of denial actually “works”. Like you, I agree that it most definitely doesn’t — except, perhaps, very temporarily. But, like so many common strategies that don’t work out in the end, there is a social conditioning (which you also allude to) that makes people think it works: basically, it’s “expected” from people who have trouble dealing with relationships in SL to tell all their friends, family, and so on, like you said, that “SL is just a game, one cannot have meaningful relationships there, everybody is a freak there, and I was deluded in thinking otherwise”, etc. and get everybody agreeing — because that’s what we expect.

    The whole issue about why SL is demonized — while Facebook isn’t — still confuses me. Recently, a RL cousin of mine, who is mostly computer-illiterate, created a Facebook account, kept it for a while until she met a guy she liked, married him, and closed her account. This pragmatic usage of Facebook shows so clearly that Facebook is, indeed, the ultimately dating site (not, of course, the only one), and that some people — specially those who aren’t tech journalists, marketeers, or SEO ‘experts’ — definitely look at Facebook and the other tools as novel ways to get a date (or even grab a husband).

    The difference is that people simply don’t talk about that.

    On a company I worked for, our financial director was a rather elderly — but sprightly! — guy. He was always bragging about his sexcapades in the 1960s, under a very repressive dictatorial government which was highly moralist. So we youngsters asked him how it was possible that he was involved with so many girls. He just answered, “well, people would have as much sex as today, of course. The difference is that we wouldn’t brag about it. If we opened our mouths about the last sexual partner we had, we wouldn’t have any other. So we kept the silence and enjoyed the sex — as much as people do today”

    I guess the same applies to Facebook… 🙂

    1. Hey Gwyn. Sorry for taking so long to reply – I wasn’t ignoring you, but gathering information regarding what may have caused SL to have such a crappy reputation. In fact, Jo Yardley’s transcript of Rod Humble’s interviewdiscussion with Draxtor Despres makes me want to ask a few questions – not that I expect answers…

      But I do have to wonder whether LL’s stance regarding interviews has played a part in making the Press hostile towards LL and SL.

  3. Meh. For sure many have less inhibitions than in RL, so in that regard they are more real / more themselves in SL, than in RL, and that’s a good point. But this doesn’t mean that they are all true and not fake. If they true nature is manipulative, they are still fake and liars. So they will pretend to love you, for example, in order to use you, to have gifts from you or to have sex, etc. It happens in RL too, but in SL they have even less inhibitions, as we said, so I see it happening even more in SL. Sex is OK, but what about the feelings? There are many who take SL as a playground and take other avatars and the typers as their toys, if not their sex toys, playing with their feelings, to use and abuse them.

    It is not always codependency: this kind of abusers don’t show they true colors so easily, else they can’t manipulate you. They hide all, so the abused person finds out the truth only later, getting a big shock and quitting the relationship or even SL. She or he can be a naive person indeed, or a shy person who hasn’t a big success in RL as well, somebody who thought he or she finally found a true love and someone to trust, so the heart break can be quite serious, when the truth comes out.

    And since in SL there is less inhibition and, as you said, there are those”not so RL gorgeous” guys and gals getting addicted by their manipulative skills in SL, so they can compensate their RL frustrations by abusing of other people’s feeling – thus they are quite ugly even inside – it is likely that the romantic abused person meets another ill minded “button presser” in SL and then another one and so on… getting more and more disgusted… because so many are playing that in SL. No wonder that eventually he or she concludes that SL is only a game or it is better to take SL just as a game, not seriously. Yes, (in part) it is a defensive thought, but not entirely wrong. It is wrong to think everyone does that, but in general it is not so wrong to take SL lovers slowly, cautiously and in a lighter way. This is true in RL too, but in SL they are more free in doing so, because they don’t expose themselves, hiding behind their avatars, and they can always create a new account just to play their manipulation games. It is true with bullism too, and here I agree with one of the interviews (No. 5): “It is easier to bully people in SL because you don’t have to ever face them or face the consequences of community for your actions.”
    So, besides real life, this is harder to do in Facebook too, as most accounts aren’t pseudonymous, and usually you know already who is already married and so on, so maybe there is less cheating in general. Also I don’t think that Facebook is used mainly to flirt, it depends on the group of people taken in exam. It happens on Facebook too, but most of the addition there looks like people searching for attention and reactions from friends.

    I don’t think SL is only sex and SL addiction is only because of sex and relationships, but I guess that many people can’t find anything interesting in SL beside that, although there are instead a few of people in SL who look at SL relationships or sex as something of secondary importance, or don’t seek for them, unless it happens by chance, or explicitly avoid them at all.

    I know you wrote this months ago, but I found it only today and it was an interesting read and point of view

    1. On Facebook, it’s much easier to bully someone. The abuser can very well use a realistic, but absolutely fake name, and have an army of alts/sockpuppets as well. It’s naïve to believe people on FB are more “real” than in SL; FB is a meat market and it’s rife with fake accounts, trolls and bullies.

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