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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