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Virtual Love

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by Nicolette Bond

Encouraged by sites such as Match.com, Facebook, and Friendster, more people than ever are meeting in virtual spaces. The allure (and repulsion, for some) of these non-traditional methods of connecting may lie in the buffer they erect between oneself and the real world. None blur the boundaries as effectively as MMORPGs, or Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. If you have not heard of them yet, you will. There are 10 million MMORPG users in the world, and their population is doubling every two years. Taken together, the virtual economy is roughly equivalent to that of Namibia. These games are no longer being designed and populated by “computer nerds”; the allure of alternate realities has extended to all types.

The basic idea is that your avatar, or virtual representative, participates in activities within the game. Your appearance depends on which game you choose. In World of Warcraft, one can be anything from a long-toothed jungle troll or a muscular dwarf, to a regular ole human. In Second Life, the options are even larger, as the player can adjust physical traits themselves, or visit a virtual surgeon to have any augmentation they desire.

Although some claim that meeting online diminishes prejudices, many players spend a lot of time choosing and designing the look and feel of their avatar. This could be because it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. Just as in real life, any initial attraction or impression is based mostly on physical appearance. Consider the woman who met her “handsome wood elf” boyfriend in EverQuest while wandering around in the Oasis of Marr. They have gone on many virtual quests together since then, and have cultivated a relationship outside of the game.

Players say that microphones and chat capabilities allow the connection to transcend the “physical,” and that personality can be further revealed through actions and choices a person makes in the game. A couple in China met while playing the online game Legend of Mir 2, after his game character rescued her game character from being killed. Impressed by the heroic gesture, she asked to meet him in real life.

Often couples feel more secure in their virtual relationships than in their real ones. In Star Wars Galaxies, as in many of the games, it is possible to have an online marriage. Of course, divorce is also an option. In order to remove the ring you have to select “divorce” from the menu. To make the situation even more dramatic the ring, if examined closely, shows sign of wear and decay. Just as in real life, there is also a cost for most divorces. In Ragnarok, characters must pay 2,500,000 Zeny (Ragnarok money), as well as temporarily cut their health and spell points in half. Of course there are differences too, as one couple found out when a group of angry trolls started throwing snowballs at their wedding party.

These virtual relationships are often real enough to spawn acrimony back on Earth. A gamer named Beaux Grayson was on the sundeck of his virtual home, curled up on the couch with his large-breasted virtual blonde, when in walked his wife. She was outraged and demanded to know who the hell the woman was. Although a husband’s cuddling may not be enough to stir up serious jealousy, perhaps the sight of their characters having raucous sex would. In Second Life’s adult section, characters can rent out private rooms complete with special “furniture.” For 10 Linden dollars (Second Life’s currency) players can go to an escort service and purchase time with a lady of the night. If that’s not real enough, characters can be programmed to emit an orgasm at the desired time.

One of the obvious draws to MMORPGs is the freedom that anonymity elicits. Not knowing the gender, age or race behind the character has allowed some to create unions they would have otherwise rejected in the real world. Raven and FurryJ (both women avatars) met and cultivated a relationship in Second Life. It was only later that they found out that in the real world they were both straight men. There are countless stories of these virtual unions and experiences that unpredictably challenge previous choices.

Every day, advanced features are being added in an attempt to make the players believe in the existence of the worlds they inhabit. In an interview with Wired Magazine, Second Life creator Philip Rosedale claimed, “I’m not building a game. I’m building a new country.” Arguably that is exactly what is happening. Many of these “games” have a bustling economy, in which people are buying and selling everything from virtual real estate, clothes and movie tickets. A diverse social life is also encouraged, as people gather for weddings, quests, concerts, raves, raids, funerals, and even university classes.

Although the allure of these virtual worlds may not be understood, their emergence and growing population certainly cannot come as a surprise. MMORG’s are a natural extension of a society that often forces us to create a sort of avatar. There have always been disparities between what people think and how they speak, look, and present themselves. The leap into these virtual worlds is not as big as some suspect. Perhaps these games are not simply an escape from the responsibility of reality, but also a desperate search for a more tolerant, open society.

Illustration by Feras Khagani

FEBRUARY 2006

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