Is Second Life really just a game?

I’m the great pretender

Can we reliably say that in SL people pretend to be something different from what they really are? Just think about it: in RL, are we always what we really are? Let me point you to Luigi Pirandello‘s novel “One, No one and One Hundred Thousand“. The reason is that, in our everyday interactions in RL, every person we know, everyone we’ve ever met, has constructed a different persona in their imaginations and not one of these personas corresponds to what we believe ourselves to be, i.e. the persona that we have constructed in our minds and believe to represent who we really are. More often than not, we ourselves project a different persona under different circumstances, according to how it suits our needs or not.

Let’s face it: A lot of people out there are indeed control freaks, gossips, given to jealousy, fond of power play and malicious mind games, regardless of whether these attributes are in the context of sexual relationships or not. Yet, many hide those attributes quite well, because they need to: societal conventions and constraints demand that they keep these attributes at bay and not allow them to surface. So, they pretend to not be like that, because they fear that their behaviour would be perceived as inappropriate by their peers (also see Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development). This fear often has, as Gwyn mentions, a pragmatic character. People don’t want to make bad impressions in their workplace, because that could easily cost them their job. So, these unsavoury characteristics are repressed, because their consequences can be downright unpleasant. Of course, not everyone can keep such urges that much in check, which is why we often refer to certain people as bad examples (although, in recent times, Antisocial Personality Disorder and the “art” of being a complete and utter selfish asshole has been baptised an “ideology” and promoted heavily as “the coolest philosophy ever” by the minions of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist cult).

SL, though, is a different ball game altogether: it’s a world where constraints are far looser, because of the (rightly) celebrated disconnect from our RL identities. We don’t risk losing our job for expressing certain sides of ourselves that we wouldn’t normally express in RL. Therefore, while we redefine and reinvent ourselves, our behaviour in SL might actually be far closer to our true RL personality than our RL behaviour: even for a limited time, we display our real motives, our real innermost feelings, attributes and motives, whether they are harmless and actually good or bad: affection, altruism, arrogance, bullying, care, desire, gossip, jealousy, love, lust, power, pride, selfishness; a propensity to control and manipulate others; a propensity to play mind games on others – the list can be literally endless.

And all this, because we know that our RL identity is as well-protected from those we interact with as we want and allow it to be; because of this, many people are left with the impression that, in SL, there is no “real” incentive for someone to strive to be respectable (by RL societal standards). Gwyn also argues that displaying these behaviours, desires and emotions in SL is tolerated (if not encouraged, regarding some of them), whereas in RL we have to suppress them. If we make a huge mess, we can just start over with a new account or a new alt. No one will ever know, if we play our cards right. As a matter of fact, if we are so inclined, we can invent an “RL backstory” that is entirely different from who we really are; we can even invent a different “RL backstory” for each of our alts (effectively dividing our RL self into numerous different invented persons that form the core of different avatars). As I said, if we play our cards right, no one will ever know. And, if we think we’ve gone too far, we can drop out of SL completely, for as long as we wish and start over, either with the same avatar or with a new one.

So, there’s no real accountability, and this is another serious factor in why emotions, reactions and, well, drama, are often more intense by a few orders of magnitude in SL than they would normally be in RL: in SL, we feel we can let loose and throw whatever conventions and RL societal constraints away.

What does this all mean? Well, it leads us to a rather ironic conclusion: in SL, we actually pretend less than we do in RL. Sure, we often use avatars that are more attractive than our RL selves. We might be using avatars that may be entirely different than what we look like in RL; in this capacity, our avatars are indeed our masks. But, behaviour-wise, in SL we simply drop the mask and the pretense to the ground – it seems that it is in RL where we wear a mask to protect ourselves and well-being from others, whereas in SL, where we have nothing to fear (or at least that’s what we like to think), we are really ourselves. Here, we see a very interesting situation: our avatars – our graphical representations – are, like I said, our mask. Masks – supposedly – hide one’s true face and self, physically and psychologically, and, in this respect, they are personas, as defined by Carl Jung. But, unlike Jung’s definition, they don’t “conceal the true nature of the individual”; instead, they allow the individual to unleash their inner self!

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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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