Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Alice's addiction in Cyberland


Second Life, by Chris JohnstonIn 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 specific site to deal with addiction to this phenomenon, the afflicted googled themselves to The Elliptic Blog's Second Life Addiction thread. The result is a frightening catalogue of neglect and self-neglect, of disintegrating families, foreclosures, relationships ruined, and businesses going belly up as a result of individuals diving too deeply into this online realm.

A teen bemoans the fact that both parents are too busy 'managing' their virtual club to give her any attention. Spouses speak of strangers that were once intimates, lost to an illusion of life. A distraught wife relates how her husband hoards happy snaps of his online romances, prizing them over real ones.

Greek thinkers like Leucippus and Democritus, who first posited the notion of a world composed of atoms, would marvel at people willing to exchange it for one of pixels. Yet the fact that so many adults find themselves lost in here is perhaps more testimony to the power of the human mind, than the medium itself — after all, although in some ways is is an extraordinary creative platform, Second Life is only a kind of advanced 3D chat.

Second Life merely reflects forces at work in the wider developed world — the corporeal one, of flesh and bone, where time ravages our envelope of flesh, and society worships the unravaged. The tweaking of the avatar is cosmetic surgery. The lack of standard game elements such as level progression or any guiding principle becomes a void in which endless consumption becomes the goal — virtual items paid for with real money — mirroring the endless dissatisfaction coded into us by a culture predicated on instant gratification.

Second LifeIn the course of my own investigations — and like a cop infiltrating a bikie gang, at times I wasn't sure if I was investigating or participating — I encountered a circle of avatars dancing in synch beside a blazing pixel fire at a simulated beach on an actual weekend, expressing their dismay that their teenage children were addicted to World of Warcraft (another, and even more popular MMO game).

'My son suffers from an affliction called WOW,' said one, apparently a mother. 'Oh my ... so does mine!' exclaimed another. 'Is he OK?'

The irony was perhaps lost on them.

As we continue to become 'tools of our tools', as Henry David Thoreau warned long ago, we risk mistaking online social networking for social capital (real 'meatspace' connections between people and groups of people). If this phenomenon is widespread it's because humans are essentially social animals, and technology has changed the way we live, interact and seek to interact. It manipulates us, as much as we manipulate it.

Richard Dawkins has pointed out that Moore's Law, which dictates that computer processing power effectively doubles every 18 months, means it is almost inevitable that coming virtual worlds will contain avatars that look like real people. This does not bode well for the future.

And in the present, sharp increases in user hours and economic activity in the first quarter of 2009 (up 42 per cent and 65 per cent respectively over the corresponding quarter last year) perhaps indicate an influx of cyber refugees, sheltering in imaginary worlds from economic storms.

The concept of a digital life is indeed troubling, but there may be a positive side to all of this in that people seem prepared to bare their souls, safely hidden behind a pixel doll. Even if they do wear a mask, to some extent this creates an atmosphere ripe for reasoning about how to live. 'You level-up when you quit the game', a European legal professional and resident told me in-game, 'by realising what you have to fix in your real life.'

Intriguingly, virtual worlds may be a means of reasoning about what is worth doing, by doing something that is perhaps not. Even so, in other cases Alice may need some help in finding her way back from Cyberland.

Adam McKennaAdam McKenna works for Mercy Health.

Topic tags: Adam McKenna, rabbit hole, Second Life, online addiction, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game



submit a comment

Existing comments

I am a secondary school teacher who is very concerned at the ability of 'second life' type activities to overtake 'real life'. If a student is not coping in real life, does he/she then resort to finding a more exciting/happy/carefree life by creating another one in Second Life or similar avenues? I am concerned at the ability to escape from real life.

Diane | 27 July 2009  

I was talking recently to a friend who is a social worker, who was describing how one of the people she is working with has been becoming more and more socially withdrawn over recent months - missing appointments, struggling to care for her children, failing to do shopping. She recently found out the woman had been spending more and more time on Second Life. As described above, the concern with these kinds of things is that they allow people to withdraw from problems in life without resolving them - and often make the problems worse in the process.

Joseph Vine | 27 July 2009  

People who get addicted usually under-utilise their potential and tend to concentrate on repetitive tasks, or in gaming terms ‘grinding’. You will probably find that majority of games that you are referring to require significant amount of griding which WOW is famous for.

What attracts people to such games is that they finally can perform tasks that they are good at without much effort and get reworded for doing so. This is in contrast to real life where the rewords for repetitive tasks are few and far between.

Strategy games tend to attract educated individuals who work aspire to something in their life and use games in the same way other use TV or books. It is very rare to have someone ‘addicted’ to such games to extent that they completely withdraw into the game at the expense of their ‘Real Life’.

Val | 27 July 2009  

Nice article, but I wonder if you failed to see the attraction of metaverses, such as Second Life, to those who frequent them often. The greatest allure of a virtual world is actually the 'real' people who inhabit it. Think about the difficulty of sharing your day with the people in your own neighbourhood, your own street.

How many people are standing out there, open to a conversation about nothing? Ready to make you feel better, or share what's going on in their own life? Nope, they're all too busy, too judgmental, too preoccupied with the busy-ness of life.

A virtual world, such as Second Life, however, is filled with people who have set aside time to socialise, who are open to new meetings and conversations, and who, through the relative protection that an Avatar affords, sometimes feel even more comfortable in their own/second skin than they do in real life.

It is this (albeit virtual) atmosphere of acceptance and the sense of physical freedom that draws people in and, for the most part, makes them feel like they belong and somebody cares. Rather than rage against digital recreations of these environments, why not see them as inspiration and encourage people to create the same in 'meatspace'. Until you do, there will always be those who seek the comfort of a virtual world over the harsh reality of what they find in this world.

DREW | 28 July 2009  

Drew has a good point that it's the real people behind the avatars that attract us to online social networking. Being able to easily make a connection with people who share your interests, values or passions in a space devoted to the task.

The relationships you make in a virtual world are "real", who is defining when a relationship is or is not real? Certainly they are a different quality, it is easier to hide your unattractive attributes or to focus aspects of your personality and the lack of physical contact means that none of the people in cyberspace are going to be there when you need someone to help you move house.

I'm not denying that this addiction is real though. The experience of connecting with people online can trick us into thinking that those relationships are all we need. We look at the difficult relationships we have with family and work colleagues where we are forced to deal with each other's incompatibilities daily and think we can escape these in cyberspace.

So I'm not sure if it's right to paint our online technologies in the light of something that enslaves us, it's more like we need to be aware of the limitations and pitfalls of this new terrain.

Matt Smith | 29 July 2009  

Being a avatar in SL, there is much to learn, I have learned about prims, building items, i go to class to learn more about the building and computer things that i did not know about. In SL, you can tour Mexcio, learn the culture when you cannot afford a ticket to Mexico. There is big learning experience in SL. Cancer walks, donation drives for our vets that are returning from Afgan, etc. Yes, i guess you could get lost in other areas, but,the learning exsperience of SL, is second to none.
Don't knock it until you try it...

mustard | 02 August 2009  

Similar Articles

'Poverty porn' and the politics of representation

  • Tulsi Bisht
  • 28 July 2009

Put-downs of post-colonial India are often seen as a continuation of the colonial mentality. The Indian media's portrayal of Australia as racist following the attacks on Indian students does more harm than good.