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Alice's addiction in Cyberland

  • 27 July 2009

In the BBC documentary Wonderland: Virtual Adultery and Cyberspace Love, a 37-year-old American housewife almost forgets her husband and four children exist as she pursues an online relationship in the virtual world of Second Life. Her online persona is a scantily-clad, raven-haired beauty; her in-game beau impossibly muscle-bound and brandishing twin Uzi sub-machineguns.

It seems inconceivable, but while for many users, virtual worlds — or 'metaverses' — are merely something to dip their toes into, others fall in head first, to the extent that it pervades their waking thoughts even when they are not logged in.

Often touted as a glimpse at the possible 3D future of the web, Second Life, which celebrated its sixth anniversary in June, is a 'sandbox' experience in which gameplay is open-ended and driven by user-created content.

It is often described as an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game), but I prefer the moniker MUSH (Multi-user Shared Hallucination) — a journey down the rabbit hole in which deep vein thrombosis is not the only travail that may await the unwary.

The avatar itself, a 3D wire frame swathed in textures and invariably younger than the person behind it, is a kind of projection into the ether with which the virtual realm is experienced.

The word 'avatar' has its origins in Sanskrit and can be taken to mean the 'descent of the god' to earth. This is fitting, due to the manner in which individuals seek to edit and control what happens in their game experience — a potted life that can be micro-managed like a bonsai, right down to the ability to edit the day/night cycle.

Second Life allows that the interior world of the individual to be rendered in a public space in an anonymous and relatively risk-free manner — indeed I have heard enthusiasts refer to it as the 'inside world of people'. (I can't help but think of Marianne Moore's line about 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them'.)

Devotees distinguish between the virtual world and 'meatspace' — ordinary life — a distinction that presupposes that something is wrong with reality. As with many hidden worlds of the internet, it's a parable of belonging and adulation, with interest group titles displayed above avatar heads, and profiles — which can be accessed by clicking on the avatar's name — detailing their in-world 'friends', 'fathers', 'mothers' and even 'children'.

With no