It’s easy to dismiss the people that you meet online as less important than those you see in real life. The contact that you have with them is fast and usually anonymous, and most encounters end as soon as the timer runs out. But that doesn’t mean that all relationships online are so meaningless. To some internet denizens, especially those who frequent virtual worlds such as Second Life, the people that they meet online are just as important to them, if not more, than those they see in meat-space. I didn’t always recognize that fact. With the help of two vampires named K and W, I discovered just what these virtual world and the relationships forged there can mean to the people who actually play them.

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When I originally heard about Second Life, I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. A couple of friends introduced me to the idea of living vicariously through online avatars, and, after a little research, I was amazed to see the impact these virtual lives had on real-life profit margins. I declared Second Life a giant rip-off and dismissed it as a waste of both time and money. My friend suggested that before I judge, I might experience it myself.

I agreed that it wasn’t fair for me to judge based purely on humorous Wikipedia comments, so out of morbid curiosity, I created an account. Ten minutes later, I was wandering around the virtual world of Second Life as “Evelyn” while we made jokes about the people who “actually play this.”

I was bombarded with advertisements for things that most nice girls don’t even think about. But there in Second Life, for just 100 Linden Dollars, I could have a perfect set of … assets. And then some. After five minutes of wide-eyed embarrassment, I logged out and swore that I would never return. I resumed cracking jokes about the people who “actually play this.”

That night, my insomnia got the best of me yet again and I was bored. The Second Life confirmation email winked at me from my inbox, daring me to find a better way of spending the late night hours. I acquiesced and logged in again, this time determined to figure out the allure of this virtual world.

I spent ten minutes wandering from place to place, trying to understand what exactly was going on. Everywhere I looked, people were milling around, interacting and buying stuff from stores that all looked the same to me. It was in one of these giant stores that I was approached by two characters who greeted me warmly and welcomed me to Second Life.

“W” introduced himself first. His avatar was a tall, lean gentleman decked out handsomely in the latest Edwardian fashions, complete with frock coat and black lace cuffs. The second was “K,” whose female avatar was scantily clad in a daring black and pink ensemble that ended in a pair of 5-inch heels.

K and W both had microphones so they used voice-chat to speak with me directly, while I tried to keep up by typing text. It made communication slow, but not impossible, and at times I felt like I was typing to the omnipotent voice of God whenever W’s booming laugh would reverberate through my speakers. K was more soft-spoken, but her confidence and authority grew when she saw that I was interested in what she had to offer.

They could tell that I was a newbie because of my avatar’s outfit (and mercifully omitted noticing the way I kept running into walls and people.) They offered me assistance in decking out my avatar, which I accepted with some suspicion. Why would two random strangers go out of their way to help a random player change her shirt? There had to be a catch.

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After the make-over, they gave me a tutorial of the basic editing and game play techniques, even including files to help my character walk and move more realistically. I was convinced that one was going to be a computer virus that wiped my drives, but there was nothing malicious about anything they showed me, only a fascinating glimpse into how in-depth Second Life was for the more serious player. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and I asked why they were treating me so kindly. K looked quizzically at me (by typing /lookquizzically) and said “Why wouldn’t we? We were all new once, and this is a very in-depth game. If we can help people, why not take the time?”

She then went on to tell me that in real life or RL, she lived in England and W lived in North Carolina. They were married in SL (but not RL) and then she casually explained that they were vampires and that they like to emulate their favorite characters. Or something. I stopped listening after “vampires,” honestly.

Great. I’d been recruited by a vampire cult. I was nearly ready to crack a Twilight joke when the dynamic changed to something for which I was entirely unprepared.

K hastily signed off, something about a cat on a refrigerator in RL, and left W and I alone. He transported us to a small lounge and we “sat” on a small couch while I waited to see if this was going where I thought it was going. Instead, I heard a deep sigh come through my speakers. “Listen. I don’t know if you’re going to keep playing this regularly or not, but if you are, do you want some advice?” I /nodded.

“No matter what you do, don’t get involved in the romantic stuff.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant, so I asked him what the hell he was talking about. There was a pause and then:

“Dude, K is in love with me. For real. I know to you this might just be a stupid game, but to people like her, this is real. I don’t know how to explain it. This is where she goes to be happy, to feel loved. We met through a chat and I thought she was a pretty cool girl so we kept talking and stuff, and last year she asked me to marry her. I said yes because I didn’t know what else to do.”

He explained that in real life, K lived as a shut-in, isolated by both a crippling physical disability and a mental disorder that made her anxious and uncomfortable around groups of people. Her family refused to take care of her, so the only interaction she had was through the computer. Once a week, a visiting care service came to stock groceries and provide basic care needs, but K was left on her own most of the time. To her, Second Life was the place that she went to interact with friends and her virtual “family.”

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.”

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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.

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