Second Life or No Life?

25. November 2008 – 12:31 by Alice Chicken - 21c

The main online story in the UK this week has come from an unlikely quarter. You might think it would be about Labour’s revival in the polls or the ongoing financial meltdown. Perhaps US President-elect Obama’s continued online engagement via email and YouTube. Maybe even the closing down of one of the biggest email spam outfits in the world. But no, the main story has been a British couple’s divorce over Second Life.

Amy Taylor and David Pollard met in Second Life in 2003 and married both online and in real life in 2005. However, the marriage has since fallen apart after Amy caught David’s character with a call girl and then having an affair with another character in the game. The story has caught the British press’ imagination and had led to some rather unkind stories about the pair (they’re both obese and computer game addicted, making them an easy target).

However, these events do lead us to a more serious question – where does the online world end and real life begin?

The couple in question met via Second Life and got to know each other through their characters in the game. By all accounts, much of the ‘quality time’ they spent together was done in Second Life. So is it reasonable to assume that an affair in Second Life is every bit as real as one in the off-line world?

Second Life, like many other online games, has a thriving economy attached, both within the game and in the real world. Players can both earn and lose money through their online actions.

Even Public Administrations are getting in on the act, with Manchester Council and the British Council setting up areas to encourage the gaming community to get involved in politics and democracy.

But has it all gone too far? Are the British tabloids right to poke fun at two people who seem to spend their lives in online worlds rather than the real world? Should we be worried about obsessive gamers losing money in cyberspace at a time when most people are saving pennies in the face of very real financial crises? And should Public Administrations be spending time and resources reaching out to online gamers – a population who are likely to be internet-savvy and literate and therefore not exactly hard to reach – when they could be reaching out to the genuinely socially excluded?

In short, is the obsession with having a ‘Second Life’ getting in the way of having a real life and should we care?

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  1. 3 Responses to “Second Life or No Life?”

  2. By Rolf Lührs on Nov 26, 2008

    This discussion is not as new as it looks. The famous text based online community “The Well” – frequently considered to be the first of its kind – already blurred the distinction between “real” and “virtual” life. Some of the participants used to “live” in this community, fell in love, married, separated and even died:
    “Mandel and Nana’s on-again, off-again affair had come to seem the property of the online community. Well users had settled in with the couple’s story the way devotees of a soap opera do, and they were accustomed to the same kind of total familiarity with the plot line. Though no one could have articulated it, the notion that Mandel and Nana might have a life off The Well seemed somehow unimaginable, and wrong. (”If something didn’t happen on The Well, it didn’t happen at all,” Nana once quipped.)” (Katie Hafner, The Epic Saga of the Well,

    All this happened in the early 1990s!

    The ancestors of “Second Life” , known as ‚avatar-based online shared virtual environments’ also undermined the notion of “reality”. E.g. in the game “Kymer” people were able to change the heads of their avatars which attracted cybercriminals trying to steel other peoples heads. The participants wrote letters to the game developers complaining about the virtual “head hunters”. „The users are creating shared structures of meaning together, interchangeable heads. Having been given a world that works (even if it occasionally crashes), the people living there have taken on the task of figuring out what it means“ (Rossney 1996).

    So what is reality, then? Maybe the definition of the sociologist W.I. Thomas helps “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”.

    Finally I doubt that those who are in trouble with their first life because of their involvement in the second one, can easily be reached by governments. From that point of view Manchester Council and the British Council might do the right thing. :)

  3. By Bengt Feil on Nov 27, 2008

    Just as another bit of information in this field:

    “90% of compulsive gamers which seek treatment from perceived gaming addiction are not addicts”, says Keith Bakker whos is the head of Europe’s first and only clinic to treat gaming addicts.

    I would also agree that the different forms of online media have become part of todays reality.

    Besides: People fight over lost board games all the time - I am pretty sure people got divorced over such a fight.

  4. By Christian Scholz on Nov 27, 2008

    I would agree to Rolf saying that there is no real distinction. Is chatting on IRC any less or more real than chatting in the physical world? What about telephone?

    Right, SL adds a 3rd dimension which makes it maybe look more “real” because it simply looks more like the real world than IRC. That might make people uneasy and maybe even frightened of it. But as I interact with real people to me there is no real distinction between meeting them in SL or in person. Just that it happens to be easier to meet in SL if you are far away.

    So that being that for me there is no distinction between the virtual and the real world, it’s all a means of communication. And where people communicate there can happen good and bad things as always.

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