Realists and Feelists: Second Life and Real Life


People still seem to be arguing over whether your Second Life has to involve your real life, or whether the two should (or even can) be kept separate. Some pretty firm opinions are expressed in profiles, and I’ve heard some outright arguments about it. But the controversy seems to come down to a semantic disagreement over what we mean by “real life,” and once that’s cleared up, the whole thing becomes a lot easier to understand and to deal with.

We use “real life” two ways. On the one hand, some people use it to mean “real life feelings,” meaning the real feelings and emotions we experience interacting with others in Second Life.  Let’s call these people Feelists (indulge me.) When Feelists say it’s impossible to separate SL from RL, they mean that what happens in SL affects their real-life human feelings; that they feel what their avatar feels. These are the people who’ll tell you that behind every avatar is a human being with real life emotions and sensitivities.

Of course they’re right. We engage in SL precisely to have our feelings titillated, satisfied, or fulfilled, whether by shopping or wandering some fantastic build or making friends or whatever. Our avatars wear their hearts on their sleeves and can have them hurt or crushed when things don’t work out, just like in real life. Seen this way, SL=RL. There’s no separating the two.

Then there are the people who consider “real life” more than a matter of emotion. For them, “real life” means their life in the real world, who they are, what they look like, what they sound like, what they do, who they live with. Let’s call these people Realists. For them, the idea of mixing their real life in with their Second Lives implies getting personal with them and asking them to reveal things about themselves. For Realists, suggesting that RL=SL is asking them to drop their masks and blur the line between fantasy and reality. It makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, and rightly so. No one should have to be told about the dangers of putting real-life information into a stranger’s hands. You just don’t do it.

You don’t have to go very far in SL to start encroaching on people’s real lives. Asking for a picture, asking their age, even asking them where they live, can be intrusive and a threat to their sense of privacy and anonymity. Of course, the ultimate mixing of SL and RL is when the people behind the avatars agree to a real life meeting, but you don’t have to go that far to start making people uncomfortable.

There seems to be some kind of idea that people who don’t share their real lives in SL are somehow less honest or ethical than those that do, and this is total nonsense. There’s nothing in Second Life that says you have to be your real life self here, or make those details accessible to others. in fact,m Second Life by its very nature assumes we’ll be distorting the truth. None of us looks like our avatar, or acts like we do in SL, or talks like we do in text. How far you’re allowed to distort is a tricky area. It’s okay to present yourself as a horse or a robot or fairy, but as a member of the opposite sex? As someone older or younger or of a different ethnic group?

SL would be a lot easier to handle if none of us made any RL assumptions about the avatars we met and treated everything that happened in the context of SL. But we don’t. We’re always straddling that line between SL and RL, and arguing about where it should be.

So next time you wander into an argument over the place of real life in Second Life, make sure you find out what people are talking about, and whether they’re Realists or Feelists. And then take it all with a grain of salt anyhow.


About Aiden Swain

Editor/Publisher, Humm Magazine: Journal of Cybersexuality

One comment

  1. Thaumata Strangelove

    Interesting post. I could write a book about this topic. It’s very dear to my heart.

    I’ve always referred to them as immersionists (people who prefer to explore fantasy lives in SL) and augmentationists (people who see SL as another extended social network.) I have friends who rest firmly 100% in one or the other, but like the Kinsey Scale, most people are somewhere in the middle. The two extremes have a hard time finding common ground for sure, at least, not enough for a lasting friendship. (Short fantasy encounters and costume exploration are almost universally embraced.) I’ve tried many times to build that bridge, but eventually you do hit an impasse where all parties feel a little exposed. (The immersionist because they feel breaking character intrudes on their personal spaces and the augmentationist because they realise their forthrightness with RL details isn’t being reciprocated.)

    That being said, I once met a very nice lady in SL. I’m RL married to him now and living on the other side of the world. It’s definitely not impossible to find common ground if you don’t start at extremes, just difficult.

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