While this Journal of Virtual Worlds Research study lacks a title that suggests nudity/lewdity as part of its content to ensure lots of clicks, like the semi-ridiculous skin-exposure-in-SL story, it does actually discuss some of the concepts that residents of Second Life have contemplated for years. Namely, the mysterious bonds that form between us. Love and romance. How SL passion affects our RL relationships. It targets a specific profile: those of us with both RL and SL intimate relationships, but many of the conclusions and speculations are relevant to all of us.
First, the purpose of the study and a summary of the results (I have cut most of the citations for ease of viewing; please see the PDF file for full source material).
The survey polled women and men who were in a committed relationship in an immersive virtual world and also in a committed RL relationship. The goal was to look at the nature of relationship satisfaction and its predictors (i.e., what components of a relationship signal that it will be satisfying/successful). The 236 participants were recruited from Second Life, carefully screened and then asked to respond to an online survey about their relationships and the levels of satisfaction. The survey results were then interpreted by the researchers “in terms of their implications for culture, RL relationships and RL marriage”.
They are saying that they have serious committed relationships here which rival or are better than their committed relationships in RL.
The results showed that virtual committed relationships are at least as satisfying as committed RL relationships, with few exceptions. The surprise to me is that respondents are not simply saying that SL is a lark and secret getaway, they are saying that they have serious committed relationships here which rival or are better than their committed relationships in RL.
Some people hook up with their RL partners in SL, but the study found that most virtual committed relationships (81.7%) were with a partner other than their RL partner. Also, while both males and females were “highly satisfied with their intimate SL relationships, none of the respondents found their RL relationship to be significantly more satisfying than the SL relationship. SL–1. RL–0. And finally, the study revealed that older people were generally more satisfied with their SL relationship than younger people.
How did this happen? How can true feeling thrive in a “pretend” environment? Well, the answer is a funny little thing called inter-reality. It has a name!
For casual observers of virtual worlds and those who play in them, the fact that many avatars in SL develop committed, romantic relationships with avatars driven by people who are not their RL spouse or partner may seem to be of little real consequence; simply pixels playing a game with other pixels. But, as detailed by de Nood & Attema (2006) and Meadows (2008), those involved in virtual worlds often experience a sense of “inter-reality” which blends their real and virtual worlds in fundamental ways so that those driving avatars actually experience the same intensity of emotion and the same psychology as they would were they similarly involved in their RL.
I barely admit to anyone in my RL that I, a grown-up with a life, “play” this “game” called Second Life. Because it feels impossible to explain why I am here, why this feels real, why it is important, and why there is such intensity and bonding between people in Second Life.
We occupy a virtual world where communication is vital to any kind of relationship; we have no RL body language or facial expressions or, in text, nuances of speech. We communicate in what has become a highly detailed and often sophisticated way, and the importance of communication in SL might just contribute to the closeness reported by the respondents. The study speculates:
[This] may have something to do with the satisfying feelings that often develop in a highly communicative relationship, such as those on SL, where communication is the essence of any relationship; communication having to occur for there to be any interaction on this social platform. This notion is supported by findings which suggest that it is the quality, and not the quantity of communication, that tends to predict relationship satisfaction. Or perhaps, it relates not to the social platform itself but to the anonymity of virtual love, which allows for more disclosure in the absence of actual intimacy.
Communication as a substitute for physical intimacy (which is what I am assuming is meant by “actual” intimacy)? What of the rampant sex allegedly occurring all over Second Life? The study found that intimacy was not predictive of relationship satisfaction in SL; it was not vital to a committed, satisfying relationship, according to survey results. The researchers are not surprised by this finding (though I am, somewhat) because they recognize that the identity or even gender of one’s SL partner may not be known. (Yes, I suppose that could inhibit intimacy.)
How could intimacy outside a RL marriage not be threatening?
What was surprising to the researchers was the “realness” and satisfaction that both men and women experience, despite “the virtual and real distances between avatar partners, despite the lack of intimate knowledge (even true RL gender) of a relationship partner, and despite the overall RL veil of secrecy behind which any avatar plays.”
It is also surprising that both men and women felt themselves to be in truly committed relationships on SL even though all that is required to end an SL relationship is to simply never log on again or to log on as a brand new, alternative avatar (i.e. an “alt”); this enabling that player to continue playing the game while remaining completely hidden from an old love.
This kind of commitment and dedication in a virtual world must be a threat to RL relationships. How could intimacy outside a RL marriage not be threatening? Well, while the study underlines the potential threat that a virtual world presents to RL relationships, results also suggest that there is some kind of potential therapeutic benefit of a virtual world to struggling RL couples.
With its emphasis on communication and relationship novelty (almost anything being possible, even flying), SL may be of therapeutic value to RL couples that are “communication challenged or novelty starved.”
(“Even flying”. I loved that part. So unnecessary but so irresistible, once you’ve been in Second Life for any length of time.)
I’m not convinced about the therapeutic value of SL relationships concurrent with RL ones. The study does not address some obvious (to me) aspects of such relationships. Is guilt a factor? Is virtual adultery more acceptable than RL adultery? Can it even be termed adultery when the entities involved are made of pixels? In how many cases are RL partners aware of SL relationships?
Future research may show that the Internet actually changes the known RL relationship landscape
While it might not be germane to the purpose of the study, the length of committed relationships is so diametrically different in the two worlds that I must mention it. I know it is a complicated issue, since time is such a mysterious element in Second Life; perhaps the intensity and stimulation accelerate time so that one week in SL feels like one or two months. Still, RL marriages last years, and SL partnerships rarely so. Anecdotal evidence maybe, but I only know one couple that has lasted past five years in Second Life, and most far, far less than that. Does the relatively short length of intimate relationships in a virtual world contribute in any way to the satisfaction grid?
The study also doesn’t address the percentage of married to unmarried people in Second Life, or the number of married people in RL who do NOT have illicit relationships in SL. Or, let me just throw this one out there: the number of people in a committed SL relationship who are engaged in an illicit RL affair. It happens! More studies needed!
But what of the original question: Can virtual love actually threaten real world love and marriage?
The short answer seems to be “yes” since people overall do seem to find their avatar love to be as, or even more satisfying than their real world love. It may also threaten to the extent that virtual relationships seductively call to those whose real life relationship is failing, or exists only as a chore maintained for children or practicality, and not by desire. …Future research may show that the Internet actually changes the known RL relationship landscape to the extent that virtual relationships cause people to thrive on new and different relationship fuels that tap into different human needs and desires, for the real people involved. …Thus, though posing a threat, it would also seem that virtual relationship life also presents us with possibilities that may be of utter fascination.
The purpose of the study was specific, and the sampling of people who completed the survey were from a distinct group, yet I think there are findings that illuminate a few darker corners of Second Life and look ahead to a universal future of, potentially, utter fascination. What do you think?
Buttercup Thursday, for slum magazine.
Journal of Virtual Worlds Research
Richard A Kolotkin, Maggie M Williams, Casey Lloyd, Earnest W Hallford
SL photographs by Cat Boccaccio.