Friday, November 14, 2008

Virtual adultery

There's been a story circulating in the national UK papers these past few days that caught my eye and set me pondering. Here's the skinny:

'A couple are divorcing after a woman found her was husband cheating – with a virtual character in an online world. Amy Taylor caught estranged husband David Pollard having sex with an animated woman in Second Life. 'I went mad – I was so hurt. I just couldn't believe what he'd done,' said Ms Taylor, 28. 'I looked at the screen and saw his character having sex. It's cheating, as far as I'm concerned.'

The couple met online in 2003 and, within months, she had moved into 40-year-old Mr Pollard's flat in Newquay, Cornwall. They spent hours together on Second Life, where players create fantasy lives, with jobs and relationships. After two years, the pair married – in real life and in the game – but Ms Taylor said she knew something was wrong. 'I had my suspicions about what he was doing in Second Life,' she added. In February last year, she caught her husband's avatar, Dave Barmy, having sex with a call girl in the game. Her character, Laura Skye, hired a virtual private detective to investigate his online adultery. But Mr Pollard apologised and begged for forgiveness. But the final bombshell came this April, when she caught her husband with his new online flame, Modesty McDonnell.

Laura Skye, Dave Barmy and Modesty McDonell

'I caught him cuddling a woman on a sofa in the game. It looked really affectionate,' said Ms Taylor, who filed for ­divorce the next day. 'He confessed he'd been talking to this woman in America for weeks and said he didn't love me any more.'

Ms Taylor said she was down for a while – but now has a new man, who she met in the online game World Of Warcraft.

(Feature by Joel Taylor for Metro)

Now, the reason that this story fascinated me so much is the question of what constitutes adultery. Where does the boundary lie between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy? Amy Taylor obviously feels that she's been cheated on - enough to divorce Pollard anyway. But does that mean that I've been adulterous because I may occasionally have harboured a pathetic smouldering lust for Lara Croft?

When we play computer games, our avatars - the virtual characters that take part in the action on our behalf - take risks and perform tasks that we would (probably) never do in real life. We can steal cars and rob banks without repercussions. We can fly planes, drive tanks and play Premiership football like Beckham without having to learn those skills. We can vicariously shoot and slash and bomb and zap people without worrying about the police knocking on the door. We can slay dragons, defeat the alien hordes and conquer the known universe without being mugged by gangs of wizards or dissolved by death rays. Virtual reality - for want of a better phrase - allows us to indulge our fantasies - our reckless, ridiculous and occasionally naughty fantasies - by proxy. But sites like Second Life are different. In these kinds of VR worlds, the people we interact with are not computer sprites. They are digital extensions of other human beings sat at their computers elsewhere in the world. When a Second Life denizen decides to have sex with another, there are two real-life consenting adults agreeing to this taking place in Second Life. There is a degree of commitment there. And an emotional connection possibly. And that's why some people claim that it's adultery.

It's amazing how divided opinion can be. I've discussed this issue with quite a few people since the story broke. A number of them - men and women - maintained that it wasn't adultery as long as it 'stays in the computer'. One chap said that he could see no difference between what Pollard did and having a sexual fantasy. In his words: 'Everyone fantasises about sleeping with other people. If that constitutes adultery now, the courts are going to be swamped.' One lady claimed that it was just another kind of pornography. She saw it as a harmless release, stating things like, 'Better they do that than have a real affair.'

But a significant number of people claimed that it was a real affair because Pollard was out to have sex with another woman, albeit by way of his intermediary, the brilliantly named Dave Barmy. The question, therefore, is what constitutes a 'real' affair? Ex-US President Bill Clinton claimed that he wasn't adulterous because he hadn't indulged in penetrative sex and because he hadn't formed an emotional bond with the female parties involved in his Oval Office shenanigans. Does adultery have to involve actual sex? Or is the intent enough? I imagine that Hillary didn't see events in quite the same way that Bill did.

Let's image that I meet a lady online - it may be through Second Life or something less graphic like MSN or Facebook or in a chat room. At what point do I stray into adultery territory? Am I cheating if I flirt? What if I indulge in some saucy chat? What about if we start sending naughty photos to each other or plugging in our webcams and performing? Where does voyeurism end and cheating begin? Is this just harmless fun or are we having an affair? Or, to take another tack, forget all the sauciness and imagine that I form a growing emotional bond with her. What if I declare my love and she does the same for me, even though we know that we will never meet for real? Is that now adultery? If so, does an ardent fan (the word derives from the word fanatic remember) commit adultery by completely idolising their actor/pop star/whatever of choice?

It's confusing isn't it?

Earlier in the year BBC2 ran a tremendous TV series called Wonderland in which we visited a number of people involved in ordinary, everyday situations. What made the series wonderful was that each situation had a bizarre twist to it. For example, one episode was about a family's agonising decision about whether to put their ageing father into a care home. What made it unusual was that Dad was veteran comic and perennial naughty schoolboy Norman Wisdom. In another, we followed a group of pensioners on a Christian pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. But what mad ethis coach trip extraordinary was that these people were all members of an 'End of the World' cult. However, the episode* we're interested in focused upon the life of a housewife from Bensalem, Pennsylvania, called Carolyn and her addiction to Second Life. When her avatar became romantically involved with another avatar, Carolyn became convinced that she was also in love with the avatar's creator. She became so sure of this fact that her family life fell apart and she was spending 14 hours a day at the computer. Eventually she flew to England to meet Elliott, the man she believed was her soul mate ... and, as you might have predicted, was crashingly disappointed to find that they had nothing at all in common. Their Second Life avatars' personalities may have been extensions of their own, but they were fantasy personas. Carolyn and real husband Lee are now trying to put their marriage back together. Lee will tell you that cyber adultery is very, very real.

I'm afraid that you won't find any answers on this post. I just wanted to raise a fascinating topic for discussion. As we all spend more and more time in cyberspace, we may have to review and re-examine traditional, social and cultural taboos and boundaries. It could be that we will have to redefine exactly what adultery is for the purposes of law. As VR environments become ever more realistic, the lines of demarcation between reality and fantasy are starting to blur. Thanks to CGI, we now regularly witness things in movies that look utterly realistic despite the fact that they do not even come close to representing reality. It's also happening in the 2D world where the old adage of 'The camera never lies' is now completely redundant. Almost any magazine portrait is now tweaked, airbrushed or otherwise Photoshopped. It's already creating a generation of kids who look at these blemish-free, super-skinny images and feel inadequate. Is it any wonder they seek solace in the perfect avatars available in cyberspace?

It makes you think doesn't it?

*The episode was called Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love.


Diane said...

Having had the experience of being cheated on (in real life), which sucked, by the way, this is something I've thought about. I know my ex started 'meeting' people online, not via gaming, but in chat rooms (I didn't know it at the time). I think the issue is really about when the 'cheating' party feels the need to go outside the marriage for sex, companionship, understanding, emotional connection, whatever. When that need arises and then is acted upon, whether it's virtual or not, I do think it is a form of cheating. Obviously it might not be the same as having a physical affair but it can certainly lead to that (it did in my ex's case) when a connection is made (or perceived). And online connections are real... just look at the relationships formed in Blogland.

I understand we can't be all things to our partners and that relationships go through rough patches when other people might fill certain roles. But when one partner allows someone other than his/her significant other fill a role that he/she should be filling (be it sexual or emotional), I think that's crossing into adulterous territory. I also think that each person/couple has to figure out where that line is for themselves.

Dunno if that made complete sense.

Anyway, I did my book list. And DAMN, that was hard!!

doctawho42 said...

I think this sort of thing will happen more and more, sadly. I know many a weird break up of friendships and relationships that happened on-line. And its all there to see. The break down of someones relationship recorded in little pixels on a screen. Horrid. Cyber bulling is particularly nasty.

Virtual reality confuses and complicates things, and I think, leads to many more misunderstandings than there has any right to be.

And am I alone in thinking that Dave Barmy looks like a repulsive version of Russell Brand with man-boobs.

Debby said...

I do not understand the draw of computer games, so my opinion should probably not be tossed in the pot to begin with, but here's the thing: both of these people were gamers, that's how they met. My take would be that they met in a fantasy world, that they moved into together rather quickly, and that reality did not match fantasy land. So you've got the Mr. playing his games, and the Mrs. playing her games and vitually no real life at all...does anyone at all find it remarkable that it does not work? It is not an issue of virtual sex at all, in my opinion. It's an issue of two people who live in lala land with a very tenuous grasp of reality.

Near by said...

I also found this story pretty fascinating - not least because the 'real lifers' were so unpre-possessing compared to their second life counterparts. Very strange really - all this technical (dis)engagement and distancing etc.I sit so bad to look like Spongebob Squarepants but imagine oneself as Ruud Gullit.
Maybe we all contribute in part to this flourishing world of online delusion ...

and really, I find it hard to understand the jealous (and other) emotions attached to online 'second' lives - at all

Planet Me said...

If an avatar is a representation of what someone wants to be, and not who they really are... these people have an awful lot of work to do and a VERY long way to go before they resemble their virtual selves.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Hi all - Great comments from all of you and such an interesting range of views too. A special 'Hello!' to Near By who has confused me completely as I've seen her smiling face on many a blog under the name of Far Away!

You're not lurking in the bushes outside are you?

I guess that Second Life does allow people to be the person they want to be; the person in their fantasies. That's harmless enough I guess. The question remains as to whether an online liaison involves real people cheating on their partner by proxy, or merely two fantasies colliding and getting jiggy. I haven't quite made my mind up yet although I'm pretty sure that I'd be a bit vexed if a partner of mine had done this. At the very least I'd want to ask why.

Near by said...

That's right Stevyn!

(btw in the garbled bit above: 'I sit' should read 'still')

I think many couples' fantasies are mutually exclusive (second life or otherwise) ha!
I'd worry more about the time a partner spent on the net, than whether they were having virtual sex with an attractive but non-existent 'other'...

Mary Paddock said...

'He confessed he'd been talking to this woman in America for weeks and said he didn't love me any more.'

Sounds pretty real to me.

My .02 cents worth:
For those of us who live entire lifetimes out inside our heads, and who use written words to define inner worlds, the line between fantasy and real is pretty thin. That's why we have to be especially aware of where that line is and what crossing it means.

Meeting in a virtual environment and building a romantic relationship within those confines is probably best defined as an affair of the mind and can be every bit as damaging to a mate's trust as as a real life infidelity. The same rules apply. It still says, "You're not enough for me" and communicates a lack of respect for one's mate.

If you're married in real life, you're married in your virtual life too. Period.

*Kicks soap box back under desk*

Stevyn Colgan said...

Near by - Too true. The poor guy whose wife was spending 14 hours a day in Second Life said that he was basically 'the help' these days. All he did was work and look after the kids while the missus was picnicking under waterfalls with some hunky tattooed barbarian. Not the best basis for a relationship, eh?

Mary - I get you here and, having spent several days thinking about this, I agree with you. If the commitment of time and emotion is there, you're being unfaithful. The betrayal is real even if the nookie isn't.

Protege said...

Hmm, many here are very passionate about this subject I can see.;)
I have to agree with Diane, online connections can be very real and I am the living proof of that.

With that said, I also believe that as love is very subjective, relationships are as well very relative and individual. It depends very much on the people involved; some perceive a simple flirting to be cheating while other couples will accept that each leads alternative life online. It is all about having a mutual understanding.

To me this is very simple and very clear; any kind of relationship online, where one gets emotionally attached and start having fantasies about being with this person they met online in reality, is cheating. Cheating BIG time. Nothing more, nothing less. To me that is a breach of trust and violation of respect, as this kind of emotional connection can exist only with one person at a time.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Protege - I think you've pretty much summed up the majority view there. x

willow said...

OMG! My word of the week is avatar and I hadn't even seen this post!! Hmmm...synchronicity?

Persephone said...

Well, I suppose this takes things a step beyond "committing adultery in one's heart", but I have to wonder, if you kill someone's online character, have you actually committed murder?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - Could be! I did a whole post on that very subject back here!

Persephone - You raise a valid ... and quite scary point. Call the Thought Police!

Debby said...

Well, looking on the bright side, if the younger folks decide that virtual sex is more satisfying than the real deal, we'll begin to see quite a decline in teen pregnancies, don't you think?

Stevyn Colgan said...

Debby - What ... you mean you haven't played Virtual Teen Pregnancy 3: Extreme Edition yet?