Years back, we used to joke about virtual reality gaming and what would happen if a total virtual environment like Star Trek’s holodeck was really invented. As I recall, our consensus at the time was that those who couldn’t separate virtual and real worlds would probably die of starvation. While we’re fortunately not quite there yet, blogs and traditional media have been buzzing about a British couple who divorced over an alleged virtual affair in Second Life. There’s part of me that really hopes this is an elaborate publicity stunt but, sadly, it is probably not.

Second Life is a cutting edge online game. It allows three dimensional movement, people can create buildings and objects that have a realistic aspect to them — and it has an economy. Not only can players trade virtual currency but that currency can be converted into real-life dollars through official and unofficial currency exchanges. So, you can play for free, you can use real money to buy virtual property and you can also, if you have enough time on your hands, earn virtual money and sell it for dollars. In some ways, people have been doing that for years by playing games long enough to build up a character to the point that others would buy it from them instead of starting the game from scratch. But the formalized money exchange makes Second Life somewhat unique. And, while I call it a game, some people take it much more seriously. After all, it is conceivable that some people might be able to make a living working in this virtual world.

On Second Life, you create an ‘avatar’, or what most gamers refer to as a ‘character’”. It’s a thing that you control. You choose its gender, what it looks like, what it wears and where it walks, jumps, sits — or flies. It might look like you or it might not. You might choose your own gender, or perhaps the other. It’s the virtual equivalent of what kids do with stuffed animals, dolls and action figures. It’s way less real than the game piece I move around the board playing the Disney Princess version of Monopoly with my daughter. Second Life is a virtual world existing only inside a computer.

But despite the fact that it doesn’t exist, apparently some people manage to immerse themselves in Second Life to the point that it becomes real to them. According to media reports, this couple met online, at some point got married and, apparently, it went downhill from there. The husband’s virtual character allegedly had a virtual encounter with a virtual prostitute and his wife’s virtual character girlfriend left him. But, in real life, they stayed together. Then she allegedly hired a virtual private detective to set up a virtual ‘honeypot’ trap. Things went well. Her virtual character decided to trust his virtual character, and they subsequently had a splendid virtual wedding. Then she apparently found his virtual character ‘chatting affectionately’ with another virtual character and filed for a real-life divorce.

There is no mention as to whether any of the virtual characters required a visit to the virtual doctor for virtual tests or virtual antibiotics but one thing is certain: Some people apparently need to log off Second Life, turn off their computer and spend some time in their First Life for a change.

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