In my continuous yet always ill-fated attempt to become more aware of computer technology, I recently tried to venture into the realm of "virtual worlds." I should've known better than to try out virtual reality. I have enough trouble with real reality. But millions of people have joined these sites. When you become a citizen or resident of one of these virtual world communities, you create an "avatar" which is a cartoon or comic book-looking person. You make up a name, an age, a background, etc. So when you go on the computer, you can be great looking, highly educated, and have a fantastic job and an unlimited amount of money. Your virtual self can drive your dream car, you can have as much virtual sex as you want, and you can have been the most popular kid in high school. Are you starting to see the attraction of these sites?
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal told the story of a married man who spends more time online in a virtual world than he does in the real world with his real wife. His virtual self has a virtual female friend that was created by a real woman. They talk, go for virtual motorcycle rides, shop at the virtual mall, etc. They've never spoken to each other on a real phone, and have no plans to meet in the real world. So, it's no big deal, right? Well, a few months ago, his virtual self proposed virtual marriage to his virtual girlfriend. His real wife's virtually furious about the whole thing.
Should we expect spouses to feel jealous or angry about virtual adultery? Will it soon be grounds for divorce in a real courtroom? It's this blurring of the virtual and real worlds that is confusing. On at least one site, you can get some virtual money to spend on anything you want on the site — like a yacht, a mansion, or even your own island. However, you have to buy that pretend money with real money, and there have been lawsuits about people claiming that a virtual site or one of their virtual associates owes them actual money.
But the emotional confusion is more interesting than the economic. The real wife of that guy who proposed virtually to his virtual girlfriend is fed up because he sometimes spends 14 hours a day on the computer in his virtual world. She bemoaned, "You try to talk to someone or bring them a drink, and they'll be having sex with a cartoon."
This virtually wayward husband is not alone in taking these "worlds" quite seriously. The Wall Street Journal story went on to say that Nick Yee, a PhD graduate from Stanford University, polled 30,000 virtual worlders. Almost 40 percent of the men and over 50 percent of the women said their virtual friends were just as good or better than their real-life friends. In other words, they feel as close to those computer images as they do to their next-door neighbors or those friends they've had since childhood. And it gets weirder: More than 25 percent of them said their emotional highlight of the past week occurred in a virtual world. Yikes!
I know many of you will react to this by saying these people should "get a life." That was my immediate reaction, too, but I tried to be more tolerant. So, I told myself that maybe being obsessed with these virtual world sites isn't any worse than being obsessed with golf, reading, or watching sports on TV. And I believed that for an instant. But then I remembered: "Having sex with a cartoon?!"
However, I knew there would be little chance of my getting addicted to a virtual world, so I checked out a couple of these sites. Unfortunately, my poor computer skills were just as evident in the virtual world as they are in the real one. It took me an hour and a half just to figure out how to make the figure that represented me walk. By then, I was getting a stiff neck from looking at the screen so intently. I tried some more, but really couldn't navigate the site. I couldn't figure out how to make friends with important people, earn stacks of cash, or be the father of a perfect family. It was just like in the real world.
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver
Copyright 2007 CBS. All rights reserved.