Odd. How else can you possibly describe romantic relationships that completely exist virtually in an online fantasy world?
SecondLife (SL) is a virtual environment where people socialize and create some of the most creative and interesting fantasy worlds I've ever seen. You really have to see it to believe it. And when I say socialize, I don't just mean chat. They dance (and it is very cool how the dances are made), play games, attend avatar theater (Shakespeare? next up - Rocky Horror Avatar Show!), watch rented movies (some in-world venues even offer old and recent movies for free, and it's completely legal), have sword fights, ride in rocket ships, get married to partners (including formal wedding planning, ceremony with vows, and reception), go to marriage counseling, get divorced ("no lawyers needed"), give advice on having pretend babies, and have sex.
Sex?! Oh yes. If you've never seen two avatars having cartoon sex, you're in for an OMG moment. "Pose balls" allow you to choose from many kinky positions and acts.
And the drama of it all! You think teenagers are bad? You ain't seen nothin'. These avatars, with their real owners behind them, foster and experience all the same drama you'd find in a real life (RL) relationship. Moodiness. Fighting. Backstabbing. Pranks. Cheating. Pretending to be someone else (and even attempting to entrap you). Deceit (especially about being single in RL). Plotting. Sabotage. It's all there, and then some. And these are adults. In real life, I'd be forced to cover my ears like a kid and "go la la la." Thank goodness for SL's mute function.
It's all about role play... or not
I've made a few close friends in SL, but never had a romantic relationship there. The extent of my "role play" (RP) is sitting on a chair in a dance club. I've been asked to participate in bondage RP, vampire RP (including the requisite neck biting; there are thousands of avatars with a first name of "Vampire"), pretending to be a baby RP (which even the psychiatry profession has a difficult time putting into a well-defined psychiatric disorder), furry RP (I didn't even know what a furry was before I registered), as well as a host of others. The only reason I agreed to even pretend to sit in a chair was because, when chatting with other SL members (in their houses, at a campfire, at a coffee shop, at the pier), they actually found it uncomfortable that I was "standing." (Queue eye roll.)
But when it comes to courting and romantic relationships, I'm told those are very real, which I find difficult to comprehend. Certainly, I can understand one person feeling love, affection, trust, arousal, etc. for another based on what is said (via either voice or text). A deep connection doesn't always require a physical presence, as any devout person will tell you. But pretending to live in an animated house, walk up stairs to a bedroom, change into sexy pajamas, snuggle, and then click the pose balls for the appropriate sexual script to run? I just don't get it. At least the moaning noises made on their headsets are real, if you get my drift.
To me, romance and sex with real feelings are too important to simulate. But, on SL alone, tens of thousands of people do this. And, if they're lucky, a few eventually agree to take the next step: to actually meet in the "real world."
Escaping from real life
It got me thinking: why do adults pretend?
I understand and can appreciate the psychological benefits children gain when they pretend. But adults? Understand clearly what's happening: these are not artists creating a story for passive participants to watch or gamers trying to achieve a high score - they are actually having real romantic relationships, with real feelings and commitments, virtually. Within weeks (and sometimes days) of "dating," they poetically proclaim each other to be "soul mates" and "true loves" in their profile "picks" (which sit between advertisements for their favorite clothing shop and blues bar). I assume adults who engage in fantasy relationships are imagining what it would be like to pursue their dream partner or (hidden) desires. Perhaps they also are making up for earlier choices they now regret or that didn't turn out as planned.
I remember hearing from a friend in SL that, based on his informal research and discussions with others, the primary factor in fantasy relationships was unhappiness in real life. He said most men and women he met in SL were married in real life and looking for what they weren't getting: romance, feelings of being loved and desired, and just general happiness. (While he met more women than men in SL, he mentioned men were also typically looking for sex, which they weren't getting from their spouses.) Perhaps Ashley Madison ought to start marketing in SL.
A few other friends in SL who were physically disabled told me that 3D virtual communities also provide opportunities to experience romantic activities and relationships they would otherwise be unable to enjoy.
One aspect of virtual relationships I find particularly odd is the initial basis of attraction. The SecondLife Marketplace is packed with skins (avatar bodies, which can be manipulated into all shapes and sizes), clothing, accessories, shoes, and animations (e.g., how you walk, dance). Can you guess why so many options exist (all created by the user community)? Because - wouldn't you know it? - looks matter. Yes, avatar aesthetics are a key basis, if not the primary basis, for initial sexual attraction. "ur hot! wanna dance?" one avatar says to another, all based on the avatar's skin, clothing, etc.
To me, claiming someone is beautiful based solely upon pixels doesn't make one's heart go pitter-patter.
Compounding the oddness, some couples (not to suggest SL relationships are limited to couples; this is a fantasy world after all) will never exchange real life pictures. It's not always a privacy issue - it's to enhance the fantasy. Remember, many aren't getting what they want in real life. They come to SL to get what's missing.
You might ask: "If you don't role play, and you're not there for a romantic relationship, why even go online?" It's a good question. I have actually made close friends on SL. Good friends are worth their weight in gold, no matter where you find them.
The second reason is a combination of creativity and beauty. Some people stroll through art museums and admire what they see. Me? I stroll through virtual regions (and SL even has great art galleries). The visualizations and things you can do in-world are incredible. You cannot leave without being impressed with the talented creators. Their amazing abilities are a real joy to experience. Strolling around various regions, I often wonder: "what if?"
Third, I like the music. SecondLife has thousands of music venues playing non-stop, and they are typically so much better than my local radio stations or music collection. The variety is awesome. Sure, I could get that from services like Spotify or Pandora, but then I lose the benefit of the social aspects. Also, sometimes when I'm working, I prefer the calming sounds of oceans and birds. So I sit on a pier or by a waterfall, breathing in the relaxing atmosphere of waves and caws.
I really don't have a problem with people enjoying online relationships, and I don't doubt the emotions experienced aren't authentic. If adults can add to their happiness by playing out romantic fantasies in a make-believe world, more power to them. I just can't do it. Microprocessors are an amazing technology, but they cannot make love. Turn off the computer and what do you have? Wanting (and, perhaps, wanton) feelings amidst a blank screen, a keyboard that needs cleaning, and the loneliness from which you sought escape.
As for myself, I will settle for nothing less than the real experience, with all its glory and gloom. I want to go out on a real date, where I get to hold your hand, feel the smoothness of your skin, smell the scent of your perfume, taste the deliciousness of your lips, tussle your hair, touch the curve of your back when we dance, admire how your fitted dress forms to your shape, and relish the curves in your legs accentuated by your heels. I want to seduce you. I want to share a real bed. I want to cook breakfast for you in the morning and watch you sip my delicious coffee. I want real sex.
I want to walk the dog together. I want to run with you on the lakefront. I want to pour our wine as we sit next to the fireplace reading. I want you in the passenger's seat when we drive to the grocery store. I want to turn to you and smile as we open our children's report cards.
When we have problems, I want to solve them together as I look deeply into your eyes. I want to watch your body language so I understand what's not being said. I want my shoulder to collect your tears. I want to feel my arms around you when we make-up.
And then I'll bite your neck.