YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART?

I thought I would seek opinions on this, so I described various scenarios and invited people to decide which ones were an act on infidelity, and which were not. I gave participants the choice of ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but some of them chose a third option for some of the scenarios: ‘Maybe’.

Of the six scenarios, two were overwhelmingly considered as not involving cheating. One was:

‘A married woman spends a few hours per day writing a story, written in the first-person. It is about a woman, very much like herself, who is in love with a man very unlike her husband’.

No participant considered this to be an act of unfaithfulness, and Lem Skall’s reasoning, ‘there is no intimacy with another person, the act was made alone’, is almost certainly what everyone was thinking.

The other scenario was ‘a man in a long term relationship takes his girlfriend to the cinema, but finds himself becoming sexually attracted to the female character’. I really did not expect anyone to consider either of these scenarios as ‘cheating’. While this turned out to be the case in the ‘author’ scenario (although Dedric Maoria said the husband might become jealous if he read what is wife had written), the ‘cinema’ scenario did get one ‘yes’, from Scarp Godenot.

Now let us look at the two scenarios that were seen as an act of infidelity by a majority of participants. One was:

‘A married woman creates an idealized version of herself on a social networking site. An online friendship turns to romance, and she spends a few hours per day exchanging very intimate messages with her online lover’.

Of the 11 people who agreed to take part, 8 decided the woman in this scenario was being unfaithful to her husband, one thought she was not, and one (Lukemary Slade) was unsure, telling me ‘it depends. Is a yes if she gets involved, no if it is just a matter of emails and if she doesn’t choose to stay online chatting and writing emails instead of, for instance, going out for dinner with her family’. On the other hand, Gwyneth Llewelyn, who did regard this as cheating, argued ‘substitute “social networking site” for “face to face communication” and you understand why I gave this answer: For me, “air” and “Internet” are similar media for communication’.

The other scenario considered by a majority to involve cheating was:

‘A man who is single in real life has a partner in SL. They have been together for years and are committed to a monogamous relationship. The man considers his avatar to be a roleplayed character whose thoughts, feelings and motivations may not necessarily reflect his own. He creates an alt, designed to be a separate character from his main account. This alt enjoys commitment-free sex, which she indulges in a lot’.

Qie Niango decided all the scenarios were ‘no except for 6, which is a ‘not sure’ for me. The others are clearly “faithful” within a specific context (RL or “fantasy” more or less). But number 6 is different in that it’s possibly unfaithful within a single (SL) context… We don’t know that the partner is unaware of the alt’s existence, nor that there’s a difference in the “roleplayed character” nature of the relationship’.

I had hypothesized that those two scenarios would be seen as cheating by a majority of people. In the case of the ‘alts’ scenario, I guessed most would regard this as cheating because people generally consider an alt to be a different aspect of oneself. In other words, this scenario does not involve two characters (three, if you include the RL man behind each avatar), it involves one person, so he must be cheating if he has many sexual partners with his alt account but is effectively married on his main account.

As for the ‘social network’ scenario, I reasoned that most people regard such things as communications technology like the telephone or letter writing, rather than a platform for roleplaying like a MUD. I also believed that I could change one or two details that, while describing essentially the same scenario, would not be considered cheating by as many people. Here is that scenario:

‘A married woman spends a few hours per day co-authoring a romantic novel. This is done over email with a person she has not met, The story takes the form of an exchange of intimate love letters. She (in character) writes and replies in the first-person, as does her co-author’.

Whereas a person creating an idealized self and corresponding via intimate messages exchanged on a social networking site with someone she never physically met was seen as cheating by 8 out of 11 people, the scenario in which co-authors imagine themselves to be characters and collaborate on a book using email exchanges was viewed as cheating by 6 people, not seen as cheating by 2, leaving 2 not sure either way.

When thinking about two people corresponding via an exchange of letters or instant messages, we tend to imagine they are speaking in their own voice, rather than projecting a fantasy character. On the other hand, the act of co-authoring a story or developing a character on a MUD is seen as roleplaying, and even though the first-person may still be used, ‘I’ is understood not to refer to the author or actor, but to the character.

In actual fact, neither of these assumptions is necessarily true. It is hard not to allow aspects of oneself to cross over the divide and become part of a roleplayed character, especially in an online world where there is no ‘narrative’ in the traditional sense to frame that character and affirm its distinction from the RL person behind it. It is tempting to add droplets of fiction to a portrayal of one’s ‘actual self’, because it is preferable that others should view you as you would ideally like to be seen, rather than as you really are. This intermingling of reality and fantasy leads to two questions that haunt every relationship one develops online, romantic engagements in particular.