Ten years ago when I got my first PC, the loaded software had the Sims game bundled into it. I played around with it a bit and thought it was just a grown-up version of playing with dolls - definitely not my thing. Although I like to think of myself as fairly cyber-savvy, I admit I didn't know much about Second Life, the online adult, virtual fantasy game until recently. After doing a bit of research, I might call it "the Sims on steroids!"
A recent Wall Street Journal article, "Is This Man Cheating on His Wife?" underscores the addictive quality of this game. It chronicles a 53 year old man who has become so enthralled with playing Second Life that his avatar (online persona/character) has married another avatar in the game. This is causing a great deal of stress in his primary relationship - his real marriage! He often spends six hours a night and up to fourteen hours straight on the weekends in his virtual world.
Oh, it gets even weirder - characters playing the game often buy property or businesses using lindens, the game's currency. The man's avatar above has a net worth of $1.5 million lindens. My first look at the Second Life Web site was like an anthropological expedition. Checking out the wares for sale in the retail section, I found they range from a squirrel you can purchase for your virtual yard, clothing and furniture, a private island and even cyber "contraband," like cocaine.
According to their Web site, 8,846,910 "residents" or players are enrolled on Second Life. That's a lot of time logged onto a virtual world. Much as the couple in the article are experiencing some very real marital problems, I'm concerned about the psychological and emotional effects of this level of game involvement. Although the AMA (American Medical Association) won't declare a definitive diagnosis for video game/Internet addiction, much research is indicating that there are significant negative, addictive behaviors associated with gaming and excessive Internet use. When does a harmless pastime become a threat to our psychological well-being?
Talia recently wrote about psychic phone-line addiction. Among the many concerns about this addictive behavior is the forming of relationships with people whom the callers have never met. Just as the man with the cyber-wife in Second Life, how can this not detract from the real relationships in our lives? The WSJ article quotes some very disturbing statistics:
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 conducted by Nick Yee, a recent Ph.D. graduate from Stanford University. More than a quarter of the gamers said the emotional highlight of the past week occurred in a computer world, according to the survey, which was published in 2006 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press's journal Presence.
We will be seeing more and more research into this relatively new phenomenon - cyber addiction. There are behavioral treatment centers that are now specializing in this area. In my own therapy practice, I have worked with couples who present with communication-breakdown issues, but the core problem is sometimes one partner's unhealthy attachment to the Internet - porn, gaming, chat rooms, etc.