After Virtual Affair, Real Divorce

Second Life virtual game screenshot Linden Research, Inc.

A virtual affair is ending a real-life marriage in southwest England.

Amy Taylor filed for divorce when she discovered her husband cheating in Second Life - an online community where players adopt personas called avatars, mingle with others and teleport themselves into a series of artificial worlds.

"I caught him cuddling a woman on a sofa in the game," Taylor told the South West News Service press agency. "It looked really affectionate. He confessed he'd been talking to this woman player in America for one or two weeks, and said our marriage was over and he didn't love me any more."

The online drama shows how emotionally invested some people have become in their virtual identities, said Ellen Helsper, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute who has studied the impact of the Web on relationships.

"For a while there was this impression that as long as it's online, it doesn't matter. But research has shown it's not a separate world," she said, adding that infidelity was "just as painful, whether it's electronic or physical."

Taylor, 28, moved in with her husband Dave Pollard, 40, in Newquay, about 280 miles west of London, after the pair met in a chat room in 2003, according to the press agency's account. Both are disabled, Taylor said.

Both of them created personalities in Second Life, the three-dimensional virtual world with millions of users.

Taylor - represented in the game by a slim, dark-haired young woman with a penchant for cowboy outfits - first wed her beloved in a virtual ceremony held in an exotic tropical setting. She and Pollard - whose Second Life avatar was sharp-suited, long-haired muscleman - then married in real life at a registry office.

The svelte images of their avatars stand in contrast to their real wedding photo, which shows a plump couple - him balding with glasses and a red boutonniere; her in a flower patterned shirt instead of a dress.

Their marriage started to fall apart after Taylor allegedly caught her husband's avatar having cyber sex with a virtual prostitute last year. She said she had fallen asleep and when she woke up and spotted the pair cavorting on the computer screen.

She gave him a second chance but then discovered he allegedly strayed again in April. It was unclear how she learned of the couch encounter.

The case shows an increasingly tenuous line separating virtual relationships from the real people behind them.

In Britain last month, a truck driver was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the murder of his estranged wife who he killed after he found out she changed her Facebook status to "single" only days after they split up. Facebook is an online social network although users tend to post real pictures of themselves.

In the U.S., a woman was charged in Delaware in August with plotting the real-life abduction of a boyfriend she met through the Second Life.

And in Japan, police said last month that a user of the country's popular "Maple Story" Web site - an online adventure game - was so infuriated by her sudden virtual divorce from her online husband that she logged on with his password and killed his digital persona.

The woman was jailed on suspicion of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data.

Attempts to contact Pollard - both over the phone and through his avatar - were unsuccessful.

But Taylor, reached by telephone on Friday, confirmed that she was getting a divorce next week. She refused to go into detail, saying South West News has prohibited her from talking to reporters. The news service confirmed that Taylor was under contract.

Despite their breakup, both Pollard and Taylor appear to be committed to scouring the Web for love.

Taylor reportedly found a new man in an alternative cyber-universe, World of Warcraft.

Pollard's Second Life profile, meanwhile, says he is virtually engaged again and can't wait to marry his new fiance "in rl."

That's short for "real life."

Linden Lab, the maker of Second Life, did not immediately respond to a request for comment late Friday.
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