Friday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal featured an article about Second Life, a popular online digital world. It is inhabited by people like you and me, but people who take on a new identity—a second life. It is, by all accounts, an engaging experience. This is borne out by the millions of people who have signed up for an account (almost 9 million according to the company) and the tens of thousands that can be found online at any given moment. It is a world that mimics the real world, but also a world that allows people to fantasize and to be things they cannot be in real life. Men can be women; poor people can be rich; unpopular people can have hundreds of friends. The game gives anyone the ability to create a whole new life.
The story centers around Ric and Sue Hoogestraat, a seemingly average couple who live outside Phoenix. Ric is addicted to the game, playing for six hours most evenings and often spending entire weekends at it as well. At one point he was housebound for five weeks and often played the game for up to twenty hours a day. His wife has no interest in the game and is growing increasingly frustrated with her husband.
The real Mrs. Hoogestraat is no stranger to online communities — she met her husband in a computer chat room three years ago. Both were divorced and had adult children from previous marriages, and Mrs. Hoogestraat says she was relieved to find someone educated and adventurous after years of failed relationships. Now, as she pays household bills, cooks, does laundry, takes care of their three dogs and empties ashtrays around the house while her husband spends hours designing outfits for virtual strippers and creating labels for virtual coffee cups, she wonders what happened to the person she married.
In a sense this is a story similar to any kind of addiction. One person in the family is hopelessly addicted to something while the others suffer but also tacitly support him. One person is being selfish and placing his own “needs” high above those of others. “Mr. Hoogestraat, for his part, doesn’t feel he’s being unfaithful. ‘She watches TV, and I do this,’ he says. ‘I tried to get her involved so we could play together, but she wasn’t interested.’” Sooner or later Sue is likely to reach the breaking point and walk out of the relationship. She feels deserted and in many ways has been.
Behind the story is an interesting warning for Christians. Ric has a second life in this game and it is one that involves another woman. It is a woman he has never met and apparently never wants to meet. In this game he is a married man. He married another player who goes by the name Tenaj (her real name is Janet Spielman). They spend countless hours together online, party together in this new world, and even have virtual sex. It seems clear that he is better friends with this virtual friend than with his life. He prefers the company of Tenaj than that of his wife. And, unfortunately, it is no longer unusual for people to prefer virtual company than real-life company. “Nearly 40% of men and 53% of women who play online games said their virtual friends were equal to or better than their real-life friends, according to a survey of 30,000 gamers.”
A short time ago I read an article written by a Christian suggesting that online dating is not a biblical option for Christians. I would tend to disagree. The greatest strength of online dating, as I understand it and as I’ve seen it play out (even in the life of a family member) is that it removes the physical dimension, at least for a time, while increasing the necessity and the depth of communication. People who date online share things in the written word they may not share face-to-face. This builds a kind of intimacy that is very important to relationships which can otherwise become easily derailed by physical intimacy. But the strength of such an online relationship shows the danger of forging these kinds of relationships haphazardly.
This problem is not unique to people who play games such as Second Life. It may apply also to people who read blogs or who use chat rooms or instant messaging or any form of online communication. Real life relationships are increasingly being supplanted by virtual ones. This article points out that our brains aren’t really wired to make the clear connections between what is real and what is virtual, what happens in the real world and what happens on a screen. “Our brains are not specialized for 21st-century media,” says Prof. Reeves. “There’s no switch that says, ‘Process this differently because it’s on a screen.’” So while a man like Ric may insist that he can draw a neat line separating what is happening on the computer from what is happening in real life, on a psychological level this may not be the case. And certainly on a spiritual and emotional level it is not the case. The story makes it clear that the intimacy he has developed with Tenaj has come at the expense of Sue. “Sitting alone in the living room in front of the television, Mrs. Hoogestraat says she worries it will be years before her husband realizes that he’s traded his real life for a pixilated fantasy existence, one that doesn’t include her.”
I’ve never played Second Life and have no intention of getting into it. It looks like it would be lots of fun, but it also looks like it would be far too addictive. My brief experience with this kind of game or experience shows that they have a strange power to draw people into them. I’d be concerned that it would suck me in and consume far too much time. But I have another concern. I am concerned that a game like this would lead me to develop relationships that are not real or valuable. Like Ric, I could easily develop relationships that exist only in bits and bytes and pixels. I would develop these relationships at the expense of real ones. After all, if I spend my Saturday afternoon sitting in my office roaming the lands in Second Life, I would not be able to spend that time with families, friends and neighbors. Yet there is more to it than time.
The time I might spend in a virtual world is only the beginning. There is also emotional and spiritual time and energy that would also be invested in something so fleeting. It seems clear that Ric’s investment is far deeper than only time. He is using this game, this world, to construct a whole new life and one that is far more interesting, far more perfect than the one he has now. In the game he is young, wealthy, fit and surrounded by beautiful women. His wife realizes this. “Basically, the other person is widowed,” she says. “This other life is so wonderful; it’s better than real life. Nobody gets fat, nobody gets gray. The person that’s left can’t compete with that.”
Constructing a second life is a proposition that may be fraught with peril. After all, if we create a life that is fictional but which represents what we would really like life to be like if it was without its current limits, we will necessarily make this real life look pretty pathetic in comparison. Consider Ric: in real life he is sick and overweight and getting older every day. He works a job that he probably does not much like and which does not pay very much. His wife is also getting older every day, is heavy set and does not support his addiction. But in the game he is young and attractive and rich and unbound by the nagging wife. As Sue says, his character is him at 25. Or it is how he wishes he could have been at 25.
In this virtual world we are all in danger of creating second lives. We may do so through a game like this one. We may do so simply by being dishonest in our blogs or in what we share about ourselves in the many social media platforms. The danger of being a different person in a second life is that this first life is the one we really live. What we do in the second impacts the first—how we feel about it, how we live it, how we enjoy it. God has given us one life to live. It would be foolish of us to give to much time, too much attention and too much energy to a second, virtual one. Chances are that this one will always look shabby in comparison.