When I started out playing my first Massive Multiplayer Online Game, Asheron's Call, my immediate family bought three copies: I was in high school at the time, and my parents and I decided to move from Diabloesque games where only the three of us or visiting friends played to a larger scale. We weren't alone: my cousin, uncle, and aunt all joined up too. We occasionally joined up with other players, people who weren't members of the Salter clan, but mostly these games became our family pasttime. They live in Florida, so actually seeing them often would have been quite a feat while a weekly or more night of Asheron's Call--and later Asheron's Call 2, Anarchy Online, and now World of Warcraft--is much easier to arrange.
I was reading Laura's blog about some of the fears for isolating effects of virtual worlds: the lack of refined manners and conversation out in the real world, the tendency to substitute virtual contact for "real" ones, the problems that can arise from spending too much time interfacing with the world through a screen rather than through physical closeness. There are so many ways too meet people in virtual space, and all of them filled with that looming risk a person might not be who they claim to be. I've met many people in my life that way, and several have stayed important to me, and many of whom--such as my fellow writers on CinCity2k--provide me with communities of knowledge and interest I would not otherwise have.
This virtual connections can be meaningful, but mostly the Internet is indispensable to me for keeping me in touch with people who are geographically distant. When I was younger I lost my connections with the friends I grew up with in California when I moved back to Maryland, and the plans to be "pen-pals" seemed doomed to fall through. Now I've found some of them again on Facebook. I don't live near my extended family, but I can play Warcraft with them or send out a quick email whenever the thought crosses my mind. This seems to me to be the essence of the new structure: not that it makes new connections possible, but that it makes sustaining connections easier.
This brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to the virtual world sexcapades I'd like to address this semester. Consider again the question of virtual adultery. Say a married man enters a world, Second Life for simplicity's sake, and meets a lady there. There's conversation, drinks in a fully equipped bar, and fully animated connection. Nothing real has happened in such an encounter that can be documented. It's an affair with an on-screen set of pixels and words. Is that an affair at all? Is it any different from playing a game--Monkey Island, say--where the player leads the avatar of Guybrush Threepwood on his continual attempts to win the heart of Governor Marley? It's all just text and pixels after all.
Change one detail: say the man meets a lady at a real bar. They exchange avatar names finding they share a passion for Second Life. Now the encounter is entirely in-game, but there's a face and a remembered connection behind the pixels. Is this more real? Would any wife be satisfied with the explanation "It's just a game?"
Here, the line seems clear to draw: no one's going to be happy with any flirting with girls met in bars, even if it does all go to the Internet. But it's not a long step from the first fully online lady to this level. Would an emailed exchange of photos [even if the lady's image is probably pulled from someone else's myspace page...] make the lady real enough to be a threat? How about a switch from text-only chat to voice over IP?
When, in short, is a connection "real"?