Confessions: Temptations in Virtual Reality

“Are you looking for love?” For a moment, I was stunned . . . and flattered. Here I was alone with Roxy, a curvaceous lady. I had been with her for hardly a few minutes and she had whispered such alluring words to me. Shouldn’t I respond as any normal red-blooded male would and ‘play along’? Who knows what possibilities lay ahead? Furthermore, my wife was not with me, which was to be expected since it was one o’clock in the morning. I wrestled with a momentous choice. Thankfully, my sanctified self gained the upper hand. Struggling to make a supreme renunciation of ‘love’ I could only managed a bland response, “how can we talk about true love if we cannot see each other face to face?”

Perhaps Roxy sensed my hesitation. She retreated into a defensive mood. Back shot a reply, “ I guess we are all Jungian archetypes.” Well, I thought, the lady has gone philosophical. Being an incorrigible academic I couldn’t resist playing along and countered a reply to show off my familiarity with Jungian depth-psychology, “ I guess most of us who try to meet one another in this manner are more introvert rather than extrovert. We all come to this make believe world precisely to escape from more demanding face-to-face relationships.” I don’t know if that ‘hurt’ her feelings but before I could explain further, Roxy suddenly vanished before my eyes. It looked like Roxy decided to dump me when it became apparent that I was not the kind of man she was looking for. Now I had reason to feel hurt and rejected.

Roxy was the high point of my brief excursion in the virtual world – well, Alpha-World to be exact. Alpha-World is one of hundreds of computer generated virtual reality (VR), worlds into which people from all over the world can log on in order to meet others and interact with one another. Unlike the ICQ (I seek you) where users can only communicate with each other via typed messages, these virtual worlds enable visitors to interact in a graphic 3-D (three dimensional) environment. Users choose a 3-D icon to represent themselves and may meet each other in different settings, such as a park, a museum, a school or even a Martian landscape. Alpha-World claims to have the size of California and mimics the real world. For instance, it has railway lines although it eludes me why one would bother to board a train when one can easily fly or teleport instantly from one place to another. Registered users – that is, those who pay the requisite fees – become ‘citizens’ and have rights to build properties and enter exclusive meeting areas.

Interestingly, the icons and personalities offered to users are called avatars. Of course, in Hindu mythologies avatars are manifestations of Hindu gods who temporarily take on human forms to move among humankind. In the virtual world, avatars reflect the kind of personalities that one chooses. I could have chosen a personality that exudes power, or seductiveness or one that projects a sinister outlook. But then, being sinister would defeat my purpose since I entered the virtual world to meet people. Perhaps an impish one would do. For example, I met someone called “Twitchy Witchy” who just ran, or rather flew around while screeching out loud, “I don’t care about anybody, I am a witch!”

Being a tourist – that is, an unregistered user – meant I could only choose one of those bland icons that carried a camera around. Unfortunately, Alpha-World citizens seem to have a disdain for tourists. Nobody was interested to talk to me, even when in frustration I shouted to a crowd gathering at a park, “Anybody cares to talk? I am from Mars!” Even when I changed my name from Sam – which suggests a harmless personality to Looney-Heart – a more quirky character, or so I thought – no one bothered to talk to me. To add salt to injury the cyber group at the park suddenly switched to talking in Spanish.

In desperation I decided to assume a female persona. Fortunately the icon did not require me to wear a skirt. The long hair sufficed to establish my new identity. I was now Jessica, and what a pleasant surprise awaited me. People suddenly were more than happy to talk to me, Jessica, my cyber double! Unfortunately, the conversations tended to become insipid, especially since I avoided asking whether people were looking for love and pretended not to understand the sexual innuendos from amorous males. Overall, my encounters in VR turned out to be less satisfying than engaging in the proverbial small talk concerning the weather with a stiff-lipped Englishman.

Roxy turned out to be a surprise catch for a visitor. It was a ‘reward’ for hard work in coming up with a splendid name that suggested class and distinction (of course, I am keeping this name a trade secret). But my brief encounter with Roxy triggered many troubling and conflicting emotions in me, emotions that have nothing to do with ‘love’.

Initially, I had an exhilarating sense of freedom upon becoming an avatar. All of a sudden, I had the power to reconstruct a totally new identity and define my new personality anyway I desired. No one could tell me what I should be or shouldn’t be. But it quickly struck me that this freedom can easily slide into fantasy. In psychological terms, I could end up indulging in an exercise of transference, attributing to my cyber double all the qualities which I dreamed of but which I could not achieve in real life.

The basic anonymity that accompanies the ambience of VR also encourages freedom from inhibition. Since I can take on a multiplicity of personalities, changing them at the will with a click of the button of my mouse, I don’t have to fear being held responsible for saying wrong things or having values that are not politically correct. It has been said that the bar is the devil’s best imitation of Church fellowship. I guess he has upgraded his software, thanks to VR. Virtual chat rooms are even better than the bar. I can simply teleport myself to another meeting place if I should find anyone annoying.

But one can’t help feeling assailed by doubts that continually gnaw at these exhilarating feelings. Cyber visionaries assure us that the ability to change personalities gives users the freedom to explore the limitless potential of their psychological moods and impulses. But, if one can assume any identity – even those that run counter to our basic personality types, or worse, gender – then it can only result in a life of incoherence and contradictions. What happens to the real me as it becomes split into a multiplicity of personalities? Can I just pretend that my alter egos are purely fictitious if I take on these personae and live them out several hours daily? What happens to our souls, or, that enduring center of personality to which we can appeal as the agent who keeps its word and takes responsibility for the deeds we do? Is it not the case that we despise people of shifting character writing them off as unreliable chameleon or schizophrenics?

If avatars mutate constantly in VR then to whom am I talking on the other side of the net? These uncertainties bring to mind the classic case of a college student who found that he was falling in love with the lady who had been net-chatting with him for some years. Judging from the net exchanges he could only envisage his partner as a charming lady. Eventually, he suggested that ‘she’ meet to seal their relationship with marriage. At that point, the other party confessed that ‘she’ had all along been a fifty-year-old man masquerading as a young lady.

Mark Slouka has documented a more classical case in his book, War of the Worlds. He describes how a married graduate student, Avram joined a MOO group (one of those MUD or Multi-User Dialogs) using an assumed identity named “Allison”. Avram allowed Slouka to join one of his chat sessions with “Janine”. Slouka discovered that “Allison” was having a lesbian relationship with “Janine”. They had even “had sex” in virtual reality. Not surprisingly, when Slouka engaged in conversation with Janine Avram became distraught, and jealous and quickly grabbed the keyboard from Slouka! One can only assume that the virtual personality had become a significant part of his real life, especially if he spends hours on the net. On the other hand one also wonders whether “Janine” is a he or a she in the first place.

Slouka considers Avram to be a normal person despite anticipating that Avram’s online affair with “Janine” will last “for the rest of their lives, or until that day when one of them fails to log on.” But the question is – is it normal to keep one’s intimate relationship with another party, albeit, over the net a secret from one’s spouse, a normal way of life?

What are we to make of deception through false impersonation over the net? Not unexpectedly, the cyber world manifests a dark side despite its initial promise to be a place of open and uninhibited interaction? Precisely because of the essential anonymity that is promised over the net, some users feel free to indulge in abusive talk and destructive behaviour. Thus we have users who engage in cyber exhibitionism by surreptitiously exposing the private parts of avatar icons. Others commit ‘cyber rape’ by taking over another user’s avatar and making the icon participate in ‘cyber-sex’. It comes as no surprise to find in Dr. John Suler’s online book, The Psychology of Cyberspace a significant list of avatars invested with personalities associated with psychological types such as ‘narcissistic’, ‘schizoid’, ‘paranoid’, ‘manic’, ‘masochistic’ and so on. What can one expect from VR if it is inhabited by such ‘netizens’? So much for the brave new world of VR.

My brief excursion into the world of VR must by all accounts be judged as disappointing. Admittedly in the short term, the excursions can be an entertaining; but the hangover after the chat sessions leaves one with a sense of disappointment. How flat the conversations actually turn out to be in the absence of body signals and tonal language. Furthermore, if faceless chat members could be anywhere over the globe, one can switch them off at will. It is so much simpler than having to spurn someone in a face-to-face encounter. But by the same token, it is easy to do it precisely because the interaction, notwithstanding the fanciful avatar icons and the elaborate 3-D landscape, is largely diminished?

The reality of the VR is it encourages of transient encounters rather than long-lasting personal relationships, notwithstanding the exceptions in case of people like Avram. Thankfully, the hangover that follows hours of cyber excursions leads me to appreciate better my friends in the real world. Indeed, it strikes me deeply that the cyber world is at odds with the central proclamations of Christianity – that God made creation as a theatre for us to enjoy his glorious handiwork, that the Incarnation confirms God’s serious redemption of fallen creation and that salvation finds fulfillment in a community that heals broken relationships. It is in this spirit that Chesterton remarked that Christianity, is indeed, the ‘worldliest’ of all religions.

Admittedly, I think about Roxy now and then, but I never saw her (or was it really a him?) again in my subsequent excursions into Alpha-World. Still, notwithstanding her obvious seductiveness, I would much prefer an invigorating conversation with flesh-and-blood friends over a cup of coffee at Starbuck’s  or ice-cream at Haagen-Daz’s.

 

Post Script

As in all matters pertaining to VR it is impossible to decide if the above account is true or imaginary. It is best to seek confirmation from the author/avatar (real or digital-wise) should you meet him/her in VR. But then, how can you be really sure that you have met the real person?

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An old article lost and found. Chuckled to myself while re-reading it. Might as well ‘file’ it online so that it won’t get lost again- (nkw).

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