Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A virtual affair to remember

Recently I’ve been noticing a story about Second Life buzzing about a number of news outlets. For those keeping track of reportage on gaming and virtual interactions, it represents more of the same: A “Tales From the Wired” parable that serves up online misbehavior at its most titillating. Broken down simply, this tragic tale of lust and betrayal plays out as follows:

- A man and woman met virtually on Second Life. They began a virtual relationship (This may have been in virtual spring, when a young man’s eFancy turns lightly to iLove).

- The virtual couple met in real life, and got Honest-to-God actually married.

- One day, the woman caught her actually husband virtually canoodling with some hussy. (That is, an actually hussy, virtually, as opposed to a virtual hussy, actually, which would be one of those inflatable ones).

- Because of the man’s virtual philandering, the couple has gotten Real-Life No-Take-Backsies divorced.

All clear? Virtually?

I read the story originally at The Times, where the story was headlined with “Second Life affair leads to Real Life divorce…” In skimming the dozen or so other news outlets that have taken up this story, the telling has generally been the same, focusing on the ‘real life’ consequences of this gent’s ‘virtual affair.’

Like so many of these types of tech culture reports, the tone is one of restrained incredulity. “Can you imagine… Two people who took a game so seriously that they got married? Gosh, you couldn’t do that in ‘Frogger! And then, because of some play-pretend affair, now they've called it quits. Maybe instead of their ‘Second Lives,’ they should have focused on their normal ones like the rest of us!”

What fascinates me of how the story is reported is the wide divide maintained between the virtual and the actual. In the articles detailing the behavior of the two, the point is driven home that in this case, the result of something purely virtual has spilled out, messily into the ‘real world’. Some headlines carry the terms in quotations, as if picking up something odious with a pair of tongs. The Telegraph claims that “Woman divorces husband over ‘virtual’ affair..”, where the Sydney Morning Herald states that “Couple divorce after virtual-world ‘affair’”.

All told, does a ‘virtual’ affair differ from a virtual ‘affair’? The former suggests that for all its virtuality, something tangible did in fact occur… where in the latter case, it isn’t an affair at all, but the ghostly semblance of one, meted out in some pixilated Candyland. The result of all this ambiguity is a real mess, one hinging upon conflated meanings of the virtual.

Yes, the virtual is unreal, but in a different way than unicorns and leprechauns. When it comes to the already-messy world of human interaction, a rose is a rose is a rose, even if it happens to be a cyber-rose plucked fresh from the inter-dirts.

This rose is The Matrix.

If there is a semantic point to be made here, it’s that in these cases 'virtual' is not equal. What was one once a fanciful term relating to the specific realm of simulation (i.e. the vaguely paradoxical ‘virtual reality’), the term has come to be a catch-all phrase for action and interaction on the internet.

In the most concrete cases, ‘virtual’ simply means done via a computer: Consider such mundane tasks as virtual banking, or virtual shopping. You aren’t transferring virtual money or buying virtual goods, you are making actual decisions in a virtual context.

On a singularly abstract level, ‘virtual’ denotes relation, dealing in essences and almosts. If you were to log onto a real estate website and receive a virtual tour of a prospective house, you would be getting an approximation of the house’s look and space, represented virtually.

Finally, on the other end of things, we have virtual as the antonym of actual - something that is defined by its illusory or false nature. Thus a ‘virtual’ death in an online game is not death in any actual sense, and does not relate to anything outside of its own context.

These divisions aren’t cut and dry, but they show a real range in what we might consider to be virtual conduct. And its no accident that the most concrete representations of virtuality skew towards the serious business of finances and transactions, where more fully abstract interactions often fall within the realm of play.

So imagine a woman divorces a man because he is addicted to pornography - we can understand that there is something tangible there, something of consequence and weight. Yet catch a man fiddling around with another woman online, a circumstance in which there is an actual other woman on the other end, and suddenly it becomes farcical.

In no other circumstance could the ‘realness’ of this type of infraction could be called into question - say, in the case where a man is caught sneaking calls to 1-900 numbers: “Well, sure, I was having sex with women over the phone… but none of that was real, you see? It happened in the magical realm of my imagination. The $3.50 a minute, on the other hand? Disturbingly real”.

So this isn’t a case of a virtual affair, but rather of a real affair, committed virtually. The infraction is a real one, and it should be no surprise to anyone that its consequences have played out in reality. Of course, anyone still skeptical that this woman had no actual reason to divorce her husband might look no further than their now-well-publicized wedding photo for further proof:

As you can see, dude looks bad in a bow tie.

- Rook


  1. But the bow tie matches his rose so nicely.

  2. Just like his one chin perfectly matches his other chin.


  3. Then call me the virtual swinger baby...

    Once again in all seriousness, this is just another example of people struggling to catch up with our own technology, that restrained incredulity you mentioned earlier is a similar symptom to people simply trying to adapt to this new media we've developed... as with all things there are growing pains.

  4. Oh, I think you're correct about this being a case of "catch-up": People hashing out an understanding of new technology is a work in progress, and the amount of cover time given to stories like this speaks to a growing interest in how people relate online.

    But though there may be a change a'brewin, it's another thing to think it's an organic process: something that will happen naturally and peacebly. Anyone with a stake in things has a choice in how they will approach these topics.

    That's why articles of this nature tend to grind my gears: It may be that No News is Bad News, but that doesn't excuse Poor News.

  5. I just view it as another symptom, entirely understandable. Now don't take my understanding as condoning it, because it's well... kind of juvenile really. But that's just kind of how people are you know? Condemnatory of that which they are not acquainted with.

  6. I think I have more tollerance for this sort of thing which I think is just a honest failure to understand cyberspace, as opposed to something like the Sex-Box and the Mass Effect hysteria. the reporting we're seeing may be juvenile, but I at least feel it's honest. The Mass Effect shit, which I feel to be at the same root cause as peoples reaction to this story here, namely,a failure to adapt to the changing zietgiest of modern tech, is just dishonest. (Also, holly run on sentence Batman.)