December 2, 2008

Virtual Reality? Speculation on Sex, Divorce and Cyberspace

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“It’s only a game”. Or is it? The discussion of the line between virtual and real has reopened now that a British couple is filing for divorce because of possible cyber-adultery.

Amy Taylor and Dave Pollard are both players of the virtual world aptly named “Second Life”, a virtual game world where people can create avatars and do day-to-day activities like hanging out with friends and attending concerts. She is 28. He is 40. Both are disabled. They met in a chat room in 2003 and were married in 2005, first in a lavish, tropical ceremony in “Second Life” itself and then in a registry office.

The kicker here is that Taylor says the only adultery committed was virtual. “He never did anything in real life,” Taylor said, “but I had my suspicions about what he was doing in Second Life.”

She also said that a virtual prostitute. She forgave him, and then found him committing virtual adultery again this past April.
[img_assist|nid=33952|title=Two Second Life players interacting in cyberspace.|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
That changed recently when, according to Taylor, she found him flirting with another Second Life player. “I caught him cuddling a woman on a sofa in the game,” Taylor said. “It looked really affectionate. He confessed he’d been talking to this woman player in America for one or two weeks, and said our marriage was over and he didn’t love me any more.”

Pollard says that he did have an online relationship with an American Second Life player, but did nothing wrong. “We weren’t even having cyber sex or anything like that,” he said. “We were just chatting and hanging out together.” Nevertheless, the two of them are now engaged. As for Taylor, the article states she has found a new boyfriend in the World of Warcraft universe.

The divorce is being granted under the basis of “unreasonable behavior”. Taylor said her lawyer told her that other marriages have also ended over “Second Life” adultery.

So, does flirting with or engaging with another virtual character really count as adultery, or is it only part of a game? Would both characters have to be controlled by people for it to be adultery? What if one is controlled by a human and the other is computer-controlled? Does it make a difference that the game is an interactive world instead of a regular video game with levels and an ending? Does the fact that Pollard and Taylor were married in the Second Life world change anything?

You may note that in this post I pose more questions than opinions and that is intentional. Film critic Roger Ebert recently posted a blog entry about the disappearance of film critics, commenting on how newspapers are changing to become more interested in news blurbs and celebrity gossip. “It is not about the disappearance of film critics,” he says. “We are the canaries. It is about the death of an intelligent and curious, readership, interested in significant things and able to think critically. It is about the failure of our educational system. It is not about dumbing-down. It is about snuffing out.”

But not if I have anything to say about it. I believe that such an intellectual readership still exists and that it needs to be serviced. And in an age where we are continually trying to understand the impact of the technology and worlds we are creating, we need to think more than ever. So with these questions I am challenging you to do so.