What-the-heck-realityAn interesting series of interviews run by Aria E Appleford has given me some food for thought.

Aria has interviewed old residents of Second Life® who have given up on the virtual world. She asked them about their engagement — what they mostly did, why they remained for so long, and, naturally, why they left.

The two first interviews show an interesting trend. Both are from former content creators, who had a “vision” about what to do and how to do it, and the desire to meet others with the same ideas. This didn’t work out precisely as they intended.

Why? Both give the same reason: drama. Or, to be more precise, sex. It’s also interesting how for those two people, drama means emotional frustration from power-struggles and manipulation in relationships of a sexual nature.

If you begin reading those interviews, they both make the same assumption: “Second Life is a GAME“. But, at the same time, they explain that neither of them was into role-playing; instead, they “used their ‘real me’ avatars”. They didn’t “pretend” to be anybody else. They weren’t into escapism, nor even fantasy. They took everything seriously. Well… seriously… but not by considering SL “serious” — after all, it’s “just a game”.

As they describe their experiences over the years, two or three things pop up in their stories. First, they had to struggle with addiction. But it’s not quite clear what they found so addictive about SL, just that — after the fact — they looked back at their experience as an addiction, and they left SL with the sense of breaking up their addiction, like an alcoholic looking back at their drunken times with disgust, from a distance.

Addictions have many causes, most being psychological, although many naturally have physical causes (i.e. drug addiction). Pleasure is also addictive — and so is lust, passion, and a lot of strong emotions. Adrenaline is addictive. And so is power, wealth, and the ability to control and manipulate others. So we’re not sure what exactly made SL so addictive for them, but one thing is clear: whatever they found in SL that is so addictive, they don’t experience “in the real world”. And they warn future users not to join SL, “because it’s so addictive” — but they don’t say why.

Now we could wildly conjecture about reasons for SL being addictive. For instance, since both interviews mention sex, one might think that sex, and the complex inter-relationships (pleasure, power, control) that come from sex, are addictive. But the interviewers are quite adamant on all that: they were not after extra-marital relationships, even though they admit that “their families were neglected” (one has to assume that merely staying in-world for hours and hours caused this “neglection”). More interestingly, it’s clear that they don’t see other avatars as real.

Here is the interesting ambiguity. Both seem to repeat the same mantra, “it’s not real it’s not real SL is a game SL is a game” in order to protect themselves and their own feelings of getting involved with other human beings. By doing so, they objectify other people. They don’t “see” a real, breathing, warm-blooded human being behind someone’s avatar. Instead, they have a very solipsistic attitude towards the virtual world: “everything (and everyone) is fake, SL is just a game, everybody is playing a game, except me, I‘m real, I’m not pretending, I’m not role-playing”.

Consider that thought carefully. Probably as a form of defense — “I don’t want to deal with what I feel about other people [in SL], because I will get hurt” — they created this vision that there are no “real humans” in SL, except for themselves. By doing that, they see SL as merely a fantasy role-playing environment, and, escaping from that, what do they do?

They go to chat on Facebook with utter strangers. Because, well, these strangers are real and are not pretending.

Really…?

Now, please understand that I’m not criticizing the amount of suffering that these two people have gone through. It’s clear that their emotions were utterly wrecked by their experience with SL. They hint, more then affirm, that power-struggles among sexual relationships between business associates, partners, and friends, have led them to experience the suffering from jealousy, bad temper, deception, manipulation, and power struggles. This suffering went for a long time, and crushed them emotionally, and made their lives a mess while they were active SL residents. All that suffering was certainly real, and quite worthy of deep compassion.

But maybe none of them had ever experienced these kinds of feelings in the real world, and, because of that, they were utterly unprepared to deal with them once they were triggered by situations experienced while logged in to SL. It depends so much on what kind of business you work for, what neighbourhood you live, and so forth; you might have been shielded from all that. Giving my personal example: while going through most of my professional life, I was mostly unaware of the sexual innuendos in the background, and while once or twice it was clear to everybody else that I was being manipulated, I was way to naïve to be aware of that. It was just years afterwards that I agreed that possibly there was a bit more to the nice smiles and apparently innocuous invitations…

So if I had that kind of naïve experience, and got landed in the middle of the complex sexual struggles in SL, I might have developed the same attitude that these two. I might have gotten scared about how sex completely dominates the minds and actions of everybody around me; and I might have given up on SL, shocked that nobody there is interested in anything else besides sex. And — reluctantly I agree that this could be a possibility — I might even believe that Facebook users are not interested in dating but in having meaningful conversations about high-brow subjects…

Well, think again. We all know that Zuckerberg’s original idea was to create a dating site, and as a dating site, that’s what Facebook is really good at — specially because people are so stupid to tell everybody what they’re doing, so, if you have a manipulative mind, you can even spy upon your sexual partners to see if they’re being faithful and honest or not.

I might look around most of my friends who are also on Facebook and say, “nooo, they’re not all here because of sex!” But then I would have to remind myself that my cousin just registered to Facebook to get a husband; once she married, she never used Facebook again. And a good friend of mine collects sexual partners through Facebook, and discards them as soon as she figures out that they’re not worth spending time with them. Ok, so, these are exceptions — that’s what I tell myself. So, in a sense, I’m using the same barriers to protect myself as these two guys did with SL: I tell myself lies, because the truth is too scary to accept. I cannot accept that most of my friends are on Facebook just to get a date. There is nothing wrong with that — but life is so much more than the next hot date :) — but it simply scratches the nice, naïve bubble which I have built for myself. I like to think, “nooo, my friends and I are special, we think differently” when this is clearly not the case. And, of course, that doesn’t turn my friends and family into monsters, just because they enjoy online flirting and arranging for dates. They’re doing just what most humans do. Why do you think that Facebook is such a huge success? :)

By “falling back to real life”, these two people have shut off a bad experience that they had, when they finally saw people as they are — and not as they pretend to be. This is precisely the reverse of what they claim that happens in SL!

Let me try to explain again. A large proportion of the sentient beings in this planet are, indeed, manipulative, control-freaks, jealous, fond of gossip, and love power struggles, of a sexual nature or not. But due to societal constraints, they “pretend” not to be anything like that, and “behave” for “fear” of displaying inappropriate behaviour [I'm quoting Kohlberg, btw]. This “fear” is not necessarily visceral fear; it can be pragmatic, like “I won’t make a fool out of myself at work, or else I might lose my job”. So one refrains from engaging in certain behaviours, because they have consequences that might not be pleasant. This is rather reasonable. Not everybody keeps themselves that much in check, however, and that’s why we point fingers at them and shake our heads — they’re a “bad example” that we don’t want anyone to follow, much less ourselves. Think Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky!

But in SL — unlike what those two have claimed — many residents feel that those constrains are looser. They can, for a while at least, display their real motivations and intentions, because there is little fear of discovery, and few or no incentives for maintaining a certain amount of respectability. After all, “everybody is doing the same” — which means that in the society of SL, those displays of emotion are tolerated, even if they’re not that actively promoted. But contrast that to “real life” where they are suppressed. It’s a world of difference!

So the irony is that, on one hand, we might be wearing nice avatars as masks. But on the behavioural side of things, we drop all masks and pretenses, and display our inner feelings — feelings of desire, of lust, of power, of greed, of jealousy, of control and manipulation. Because we know that if all goes wrong we can always start with a new avatar. Nobody will know. There is no responsibility — and the lack of accounting means a rather more liberal attitude towards displaying strong emotions. You can always turn SL off if you have gone too far.

What shocked these two persons in the interviews was not that “everybody is pretending, everybody is fake, everybody is not real, this is just a game”. No, what shocked them was that they got a glimpse on how people really are beneath their mask of smiles and pleasantries — what happens when all social norms are discarded, just because there is no point in keeping them around. SL is much more than merely “a fantasy” — it’s a way to unclench our deepest feelings, which have to be kept at bay in “real life”, but we can be exactly what we wish to be — and behave, act, and say exactly what we wish to say — inside the virtual world.

This creates a reality fracture in those who believed naïvely in a nice world where all people are perfect, loving, compassionate humans. Because it’s too horrible to contemplate the idea that people are not like that, they turn the table and pervert the whole classifications. People displaying their true selves are labeled as “role-players”. Situations which these people create, to give vent to their desires of pleasure, control and manipulation, are turned into “fantasies”, “gossip”, and, of course, “drama”. And, seen from that perspective, it looks like “in SL, everything is about sex”. No: it’s in the real world that everything is about sex. Only that in SL we are not constrained to pretend otherwise!

Of course this is a very dark view of Second Life and its inhabitants, and of the whole world in general. In fact, I’m quite sure that it’s not all about sex and relationships for all people. A few among us are a bit above animal lust and evolution’s drive to procreate — there is more to life than that. And those kinds of people are also in Second Life. They might be overwhelmed by a vast majority who does not think beyond the next relationship, the next hot date, or the next manipulative power struggle, but that doesn’t mean these people don’t exist at all. Thankfully for Humankind, there are plenty of those around.

Aria commented on my own comments:

If you think about it in RL when we are “dating” it tends to be more activity related.  We can actually spend a great deal of time with people without ever really communicating effectively.  In RL you have all kinds of situations where people get together and it does not work out because it turns out one or both partners were not at all who they seemed to be.  We don’t focus so much on that because it is RL … but when it happens in here, and happens much quicker than RL because we are pretty much dependent on communication, we suddenly are talking about SL as being the “cause.”

She hits on a quite interesting point, one that wouldn’t ever be obvious for me, because I cannot envision a relationship without constant communication :) and where the only “activity” which matters is, well, communicating :) But I realise this is my own very narrow view of the world; and, seen through my pink glasses, my partners and best friends have always been the kind of people who couldn’t stop talking for a single instant; any “activity” we would engage in would merely be a pretext for more talking.

But Aria might be right — for the vast majority of people out there, it’s all about “activity” and “feeling” (in the sense of tasting feelings and emotions about doing things with their partners). There is no communication — except in the sense that enticing feelings is a form of communication. But, as Aria points out so correctly, this gives you the completely wrong idea about who the other person in the relationship is.

In Second Life, there is a lot more communication. Oh, sure, people can spend endless hours clicking on pose balls, but, even in spite of that, there is far more communication going around. In fact, as many sexual workers in SL have reported, it’s not about the way you look (because everybody can look sexy in SL), but the way you talk — or write. Not surprisingly, sex workers in SL are prolific writers, tend to have awesomely well-written blogs, and, when they do “serious” discussion events in SL, they’re among the most interesting and well attended. This is a very unique characteristic of virtual worlds, as well as of online communities who use mostly text (and perhaps a few images) to communicate: “sexy” people are the ones who know how to best write erotically. And that’s hard to do. Specially because in the real world we don’t tend to have much “training” in that — but, of course, dating sites like Facebook (or IRC in the 1990s) are changing all that: we pick partners for the interesting things they say.

Still, if you’re not used to that — and if, for you, a “relationship” is merely “doing things together” — then coming into SL can be a huge shock. For some, the complete inversion in values is too drastic to grasp, and they might leave in shock; for others it might become “addictive”, in the sense that if you’re not gorgeous-looking in RL, and have few interests in “going out and do things”, but are a good writer, you’re suddenly a SL sex symbol. That can be very addictive for sure.

It’s a strange world. But perhaps not so strange. However, this “excuse” of labeling “SL is a game” in order to protect oneself and objectify everybody else, thus detaching completely from the strong and intense emotional mess one has gone through — well, that’s simply denial. But a very persuasive form of denial. Everybody — specially our friends, relatives, acquaintances — will silently nod agreement, if we tell them that “SL is a game, everybody is pretending, so it’s stupid to establish meaningful relationships there” — because that’s what people’s expectations are: virtual worlds are fantasy, escapism, and places where morons or mentally disturbed people go to have some fun.

On the other hand, it’s ridiculous to claim “Facebook is real, nobody is pretending there, so I’m going to establish meaningful relationships there”. Open your eyes, learn your lesson from SL: these are the very same people, with exactly the same motivations, hidden behind a picture (which might be fake anyway) and just idly chatting in other to persuade you to have sex with them. The only difference is that they don’t have pose balls in Facebook.

Yet.