Is “addiction to Second Life” an excuse?

Not long ago, sparked by an excellent article Gwyneth Llewelyn wrote, I wrote a piece on the “Second Life is just a game” attitude behind which many people hide. Actually, my experience has shown that there are three categories of Second Life users who adopt this attitude:

  • Those who use it as a shield from potential emotional harm and a barrier from getting uncomfortably (for them) involved in it;
  • Those who were burnt by abuse within SL and proceeded to quit in order to move on to places like Facebook, where people “don’t hide/fake” and “are real” (quite a delusion here);
  • Those who use it as an excuse to abuse others, claiming that their abusive behaviour is “harmless” and “innocent fun”.

The category I’m going to write about right now is the second one (the first one is inconsequential, as they just log in for a bit, have a bit of fun, explore, maybe have some pixelated hanky-panky and then get back to Real Life, having had their fill): the ones that ragequit SL after a series of negative experiences, which were related, at least in the case of one of Aria E Appleford‘s interviewees, with sexual relationships within SL. In a nutshell, they quit due to sex-related drama, i.e. an emotional frustration caused by power struggles and manipulations in sexual relationships. It must be noted again that, while they kept repeating the mantra that “Second Life is just a GAME“, their behaviour in-world was not that of someone who actually viewed and treated SL as a game: none of them was into any sort of roleplay, they made sure their avatars resembled their RL appearance as much as possible 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”.

Let’s talk addiction, shall we?

This view they adopted seems self-contradictory – and rightly  so. But, as the interview rolled on, it was clear that the individual concerned had to struggle with addiction. Addiction to SL… Neither this particular individual nor others in that series of interviews made it clear what  made SL so addictive to them; what was it that got them hooked and made them neglect other obligations and commitments, what made them get involved in all this drama? What we do know is that, after everything  has been said and done, they viewed their experience as an addiction that they managed to escape from and now, from a safe distance, look at SL with the disgust that former alcoholics look at their former, drunken lives.

The question is now: Can Second Life be addictive? Yes, it can. Gwyn wrote:

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.

Without being given any insight as to what got them addicted, we can only make hypotheses. Could it have been sex? It was mentioned, so I guess it did come into play. Sex, and the emotions that come with it (pleasure, power, control – and so much more) may very well have contributed to their addiction. Don’t forget that these feelings in and by themselves 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 – so, they basically turn everyone else into… objects and enter a state of complete denial. According to this viewpoint, other users in SL don’t really exist; they’re some sort of NPCs (to use roleplaying game terminology); automata.

This denial is a defence mechanism that I personally find ineffective, especially seeing that those former “SL addicts” moved on to meat markets like Facebook, where they fool themselves into thinking that no one pretends (when, in fact, it’s the same sort of persons there, so they’re just as likely, if not more, to be pretending and posing).

Addiction as an excuse

Carrie Lexington takes offence at reading phrases like “I’ve kicked my SL addiction” and stresses that SL is a virtual world, not crack or cocaine. Plus, she says all this talk of addiction is an excuse behind which people hide from their own responsibilities. At least in part, I agree with her. Even though the current minimum age for entry in SL is 16 years, the vast majority of SL’s users are persons that are considered adults in their respective jurisdictions. This means, to cut a long story short, that their use or misuse of SL is their own decision and responsibility.

I understand what she’s getting at: I’ve stayed up past my bedtime while building or having fun with friends in SL. I often look forward to logging in to SL to meet people I really like there. Has my RL suffered because of this? Frankly, at least in my case, other RL issues (the economic downturn, for instance) affect my RL in a much more significant manner, and they often do affect my SL existence: there are times when I just don’t really want to get in-world at all; or there are times when I get in-world, but prefer to either be completely alone or with certain people I can trust. I log in because I like SL. If I didn’t like SL, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong: the feelings one can get by mingling with others in SL are very real and they can be very addictive, exactly like they can be in RL. But that doesn’t give any real justification to anyone to say that “their addiction to SL ruined their marriage.” No. It was their inability to handle certain feelings and situations and their actions that ruined their marriage. In short, as Carrie points out, they present themselves (to themselves and others) as victims and so they avoid looking at their very real responsibilities.

But are they victims? Well, one can be a victim of others. They can get into this role either by choice or by circumstance – one often doesn’t even realise what they’ve gotten into until it’s too late. But friendships and romance (because, from what I gathered, romance and sex within SL were at the heart of the addiction Aria’s interviewees spoke about) are relationships that are developed because one chooses to embark on them and invest time, feelings and energy in them.  When someone gets involved in an abusive relationship and stays in it, despite everyone’s advice to walk away in order to protect themselves, something is seriously wrong. But, in that case, SL can’t be blamed – they’d find themselves in the same sort of situation in RL as well, because, if we want to be honest, in SL we act like ourselves; even when roleplaying, our personalities come through as our own interpretation and “take” of the roles we have opted to play.

So, maybe it’d be more accurate to say that this “addiction to SL” is basically an addiction to certain emotional and/or intellectual stimuli that the individual craves and would get addicted to, regardless of their source? I tend to think so.




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