Nothing new under the virtual sun 

31 January 2008

Avatar and human being: Eliot (right) and the appearance of his online former paramour. BBC copyright.

Eliot (right) and Carolyn’s on-screen ‘avatar’. BBC copyright.

Wednesday (Tuesday in Scotland) saw the latest in a new documentary strand, Wonderland, on BBC2.

This week it was “Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love” and was billed as follows: “Carolyn is a 37 year-old mother of four in the midst of a passionate affair that is tearing her family apart. She’s spending up to 18 hours a day with her lover, and her husband is in despair. But the extraordinary thing about this affair is that Carolyn’s lover is a man she has never met. Because he’s not a human being. He’s an avatar (or computer generated figure), who exists only in the virtual world of Second Life. And their relationship exists only in cyberspace.”

Wrong, wrong and wrong. It’s over. They did meet in RL (“Real Life”). And he was, and is, a real person.

The programme primarily focused on two relationships. The second was the nice, warm story of two Brits who meet in “SL” (the most popular online metaverse, Second Life, with six million residents and an economy that turns over one and a half million US dollars a day), fall in love, meet in real life, get married in real life and married in SL too and everybody thinks it’s wonderful.

But the first, more salacious and presumably-designed-to-be- ratings-grabbing tale tells of a married American woman with four kids who meets a Brit in-world and falls in love; she has a fairly stormy virtual relationship, while her RL marriage decomposes as we watch. Eventually, and – importantly – after the affair is over (she is still married), she insists on inviting herself over to meet him in the UK and they have a week of sightseeing and being friends together and nothing else (well, it was over by the time she decided to visit him, after all).

Trouble with this one is that though the guy in the UK has nothing really to lose by telling the story accurately from his angle (especially as he claims the relationship is over because he has moved on, and not because he wanted to avoid breaking up Carolyn’s family, something that sounds pretty honest to be able to admit), with both the woman and her husband you can’t tell whether they are role-playing for the camera (she the housewife who was bored and unfulfilled in the marriage, he the hard-done-by loyal husband who still loves his wife and will always do so, and is holding the family together while she has her fling) or it’s the real deal.

Did she have the relationship because her marriage had already descended into boredom and deep depression as she claims? Is he really the totally devoted, loving husband off-camera? We simply can’t say. How was the camera able to be present at various momentous periods in the life of this semi-virtual love triangle? (The others were evidently caught up with fairly far on in their relationship and there was virtually no back-story – another reason they seemed more “real”).

It was all too easy to feel that this central Transatlantic story was re-staged, acted and re-enacted, with people playing their stereotypical roles, it being impossible tell what really happened, how it really happened and which came first – the breakdown of the existing relationship or the start of the new one (and of course in RL, we often meet a new person before we break up with an existing partner, so nothing new there).

What we can say is that in both cases the relationships were mediated by a long-distance computer communications system – but they could have happened equally via MySpace, Facebook, IM, a dating web site or several other methods. Second Life merely facilitated the relationship and was not particularly integral to what happened – if she had not met someone in SL, we can surmise, she would have met someone at work, or in the supermarket or something, and if you are going to have an affair, then you will presumably find a way of doing it, whether you have access to computers and online virtual worlds or you live in Victorian London.

Not only that, the pair of them had the most stereotypical avatars (the way in which you appear to yourself and others “in-world”) – Action Man and busty, scantily-clad babe. Do any of us look like that? The big thing about SL relationships is that you know nobody looks like their avatars (despite some clever work by SL-based digital multimedia outfit Rivers Run Red in this documentary), and that immediately takes physical attractiveness out of the picture – or at least, it ought to.

Unlike RL, and this is important, most people do not mistake the look of an avatar for the look of the real person, and while physical attractiveness is the main reason we start talking to someone we meet in RL, in SL you have to be interesting, insightful, intelligent and able to hold a conversation – which is what you often really want from a relationship anyway! Maybe, because of that inherent physical bias we have learned in the real world, there is a temptation to think that the avatar you see looks like the person behind it. Well, you will very quickly get over that, and so you should. You can be mistaken in your second life just as in your first.

But certainly, SL is not a game like, say, World of Warcraft. There are no tasks, goals, levels, and so on. You meet real people and you have real relationships – of whatever sort. In that sense, and others, it’s a microcosm of RL and the same gamut of things happen: making friends, enemies, business and personal partnerships and also having them fall apart. It’s the same people as in the physical world, after all: they simply look different and can fly and stuff.

Saying, for example, “You shouldn’t get into Second Life because all people do there is have illicit affairs” is like saying, “Don’t go to Nottingham, you’ll be killed by gang members”. Well, maybe these things happen, but not necessarily dramatically more than anywhere else. And people suggesting that you should first of all ‘get a First Life’ instead of ‘playing’ in a computer world as a pastime or business are similarly misguided – what, we should plonk ourselves down in front of the TV or a movie and absorb whatever fantasy we are fed instead of co-creating our own entertainment? Give me a break.

The rest of the time the rest of us who are interested in new media and new technology are trying to use this new three dimensional, international virtual medium for art, music distribution, education, running radio stations, developing stuff for the disabled and a whole raft of other cool things – including having fun, of course.

Indeed, one could be excused for suggesting that, in comparison, all a TV show can do on the subject is attempt to score ratings points by featuring the apparently salacious at the expense of the artistic, interesting and downright creatively exciting world that SL actually is. This, however, might be just a little too harsh on the programme: it did have its good points.

But fundamentally, the message of this show was simple and thoroughly overdressed: that people are people and there is nothing new under the sun, whether it’s a real sun in a real sky or a virtual one shining on some sim somewhere. People do the same old things they have always done: meet, fall in love, break up, fall in love again, and so on. Technology or whatever simply makes it easier. Or more difficult. Or more confusing. Or something.

• The programme can be seen by UK viewers only (unless you are using IP masking) here until Feb 6. Clips are available here on YouTube.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Richard G Elen Contact More by me

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