W struggled to find words for a moment and then continued:
"I mean, it's not like real life. But to her, it is. She thinks I'm 35 and from North Carolina. I'm 23 and I live in Chicago, dude. I don't even really like this game that much. I started out playing as a joke and now ... Eventually, I am going to have a real life and a real family to deal with, and where does that leave her? Just, just don't do it. These are real people. Real fucking feelings, man."
I was speechless. I don't know why he trusted me to tell me this, but I was taken aback at the drama of K and W's relationship. Finally, he excused himself, disappearing ironically in a cartoon cloud of sparkles, leaving me alone on the virtual couch.
For people like K, I realized, this pixilated world is all they have. Maybe Second Life is less about the casual gamer and more for those who truly can't, for whatever reason, find companionship or fulfill their needs in the real world.
That night, I uninstalled the game from my computer and went to bed with my mind racing. The sudden revelation of the raw emotions and tangled ethics behind a world like Second Life made me think long and hard about my priorities when gaming. Yes, I do enjoy my breaks from reality, and have furiously thrown a few controllers in my day, but the magnitude of this was something much bigger.
I never spoke with either K or W again after that one brief encounter. Part of me wants to believe that maybe they were part of some scam - tell the sob story and, the next time you meet, ask for money to help pay the bills - but the genuine earnestness and regret that I heard in W's voice still rings true for me. I don't know what happened to their relationship, but I really hope that both of them found some sort of resolution and happiness in the end.
My anonymity and lack of personal responsibility made it easy for me to dismiss and judge these dedicated gamers without ever stopping to think about who the people on the other end of the connection actually were. In mocking them, I was only boosting my own inflated sense of self-worth by belittling their source of enjoyment and community.
While I still occasionally unleash my wrath on the unsuspecting n00b who's just blown my kill streak or mucked up a quest, ever since that strange interaction in Second Life, I've done my best to be kind to the gamers I encounter. I have realized that I will never really know the full story of that rogue who just ganked me, and so I try to make sure every impact I have is a positive one, because sometimes the smallest gestures are the ones that make the biggest impact, especially to people like K.
Beyond that, I learned that worlds like Second Life may be a den of scum and villainy upon first glance, but some very real people have a need for the interaction, companionship, comfort, and friendship that can be found within that select group who "actually play this."
Catie Osborn is a blue-haired theatre major with a penchant for videogames and cupcakes. She also writes comic books and has three piranhas and a chameleon named Yoshi. Check out her website at www.catieosborn.com.