This is a love story of a particular kind. It’s a story of love in an online world, and of the ways it can bleed into the real world around it. It’s a story of flesh and it’s a story of pixels, and it’s a story of how the two may interact, depending on context and how the romantic leads play out their roles.

It’s the story of Diamond Hope, a beautiful avatar I met one night in Second Life, standing near a tent in a grassy field on the eastern edge of the Grid. Second Life is a virtual world of individuals more than anything else; its character creation and modification screens and the raft of user-created clothes, hair and accessories available to be purchased or made mean no two avatars look alike. And though I’d been around that world for a while, I’d rarely met an avatar who looked as fetching as Di, standing in a campfire’s glow in her white boots, short shorts and halter top, a pistol strapped to her nicely curved thigh.

The nice thing about my job as a virtual journalist is it’s a good excuse to be nosy. And the nice thing about working for a tabloidesque rag like the Second Life Herald is we run our “Post Six Grrrls” on a regular basis, featuring a few tastefully shot “art photos” of the most attractive avatars on the Grid. So, when I bumped into Di and started wondering, quite naturally, what was beneath her skimpy pixilated uniform, it was a quick task to line up a photo shoot with the publisher of Players, Second Life‘s premier in-world skin mag, and document the work of Players publisher Marilyn Murphy for an article in the Herald. When I proposed the idea to Diamond, she was delighted.

While Di may have been brave enough to bare all in Second Life, her offline existence was a bit different. In Second Life, she worked as part of the security team at a popular nightclub. In her “real” life, she was a midwestern single mother of two who would never think of taking her clothes off for the cameras. But, Di felt insulated by the virtual world. Not everyone likes the fact that the Herald publishes nudie pictures, but Di knew taking off her toon’s clothes was not the same as shedding her own. Her existence in Second Life allowed her to try on (pun intended) a new persona, one just a bit brasher than the woman she had become in the midwest.

Not that that woman wasn’t affected. In fact, her (real) life was radically changed. My article caught the eye of a male resident of Second Life named Unmitigated Gall, who, besides admiring Di’s form, was taken by the things she said and the way she said them.

Unmitigated is a man who knows how to navigate cyberspace. He was wise enough to know a hot toon bod is one thing, but far more revealing than naked pictures are the words that provide insight into the person behind the avatar. So, when he found himself wanting to know more about Di, he sent her an instant message.

Apparently, what Di and Un learned about each other was enough to convince them they wanted to know even more. And as they explored their online relationship further, they only liked what they found.

Soon enough, I got a notice in my Second Life mailbox that the couple would be holding a virtual wedding within the world. Such events are not uncommon in Second Life, which even provides a way for residents to formalize their virtual unions through the world’s user interface.

But the best was yet to come.

Shortly after Di and Un tied the virtual knot, they donned their real-life Sunday best, stood together before a real live person of appropriate authority, and said the actual words that would transform them from a couple of pixilated people who happened to meet in an online game into a couple bound together in the eyes of God and the law. In other words, they met in the real world, moved in together and got married.

The Herald was, of course, delighted to have made the introduction – not only because we’d had the chance to bring two people together, but because their story illustrated the true power of online worlds.

We think of these places most often as games, but there is much more going on in them than simply play. What we often forget is that any place in which two or more people can interact, whatever else it is, is a communications medium of a certain sort. Connecting via an online world – whether it’s Second Life, World of Warcraft, EverQuest or any other – is not different from connecting via a chat room, via Friendster, via telephone or even in the time-honored way people sometimes connect at a party: Spotting a stranger across the room and knowing, in those first seconds of contact, that here is a person you need to know more about. The things you need to know in that party conversation are the same things you need to know in a virtual world: Who is this person? What are they like? What do they do? Are they smart and funny? Can they be trusted? And, perhaps most importantly, are they interested in me?

All these questions present potential obstacles. A wrong answer to any one of them could easily turn your fantasies of wild romance into a nightmare vision of hell on earth. But they are the same questions, whether the context is online or off. The only difference is the order in which they’re answered. At a party, the question of physical attraction is answered first. In a virtual world, it is often the last thing to be revealed.

In fact, it can be argued that interactions in virtual worlds and online games give us more important information at an earlier moment than we could get while standing around at a party. One gamer I spoke to recently, whom I’ll call Jake, is now married to a woman he first met while playing Ultima Online. They started out by working together, by cooperating on quests and finding that they complemented each other well, they got along and yes, they maybe even “liked” each other. Is this – the fact you get along in an online game – a good basis on which to form a relationship? I’d argue it’s at least as good a basis as the hormonal one that leads to far more unions, and perhaps a better one. How well you chat someone up at a party is not a very good indicator of long-term mutual compatibility, after all. How well you work together to accomplish shared goals, on the other hand, can shed more light on the prospects for a lasting relationship.

Does that mean we should all be looking for love in online places? Of course not; don’t be silly. But it does mean the love we sometimes discover there is no less real, and no more an oddity, than that which we encounter for the first time in the physical world.

When it’s right, they both end up in exactly the same place. Keep that in mind the next time a hot night elf is looking for help with a quest. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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