Love and relationships in Virtual Spaces and Places: a personal response

Can relationships and feelings of emotional connection in virtual worlds be as ‘real’ as other relationships we have?

Whilst doing an exercise for my Online Therapy Institute (OTI) training I was inspired by the activity to extend this reflection to my blog and to add a couple of articles to the ones set. The three articles (see below) raise interesting points about relationships in Virtual Worlds and Spaces although they follow the usual utopian/dystopian archetype (either all good or all bad outcomes).

I do wonder if the reality lies somewhere between the two extremes. A focus on just the outcomes and consequences of relationships online and virtually is but one part of a wider picture. Tizzi Canucci provides a slightly different perspective than the original articles. Our everyday interactions and communications over time develop relationships through participation seems a more interesting place to look in understanding how relationships are being lived and enacted in virtual spaces.

The first of the articles is by Marymount University (source) called Second Life Relationships More Satisfying Than Real Ones argues that from the two surveys that they ran over 50% stated that they could communicate better with their second life partner and over a one third felt they had a stronger relationship with their in world partner. This is an interesting article in the sense that it demonstrates the strength of our imaginations in connecting us to others in real and meaningful ways in similar ways to real life relationships. There does seem to be a hint in this article that dissatisfaction with real world relationships may be overcome in a virtual partner where the interpersonal conflict of being present to each other all the time in the real world is mitigated.

The second article is by Highfield (source) called Virtual worlds could replace real relationships which in the first half of the article carries a warning from a leading scientist simulation could abandon the messy intimacy of real-life human relations for two-dimensional liaisons in the virtual world. This seems a reasonable anxiety however with the global uptake of technology and the internet at the rate of about 75% in Europe and 19% in Africa (wikipedia source) the totalising sentiment in this article is undermined. A different well known scientist Richard Dawkins has been exploring Second Life incognito and I agree with his conclusion that Second Life offered intriguing new opportunities for sociological research.

Finally Casti (source) in the articles titled “7 World of Warcraft Weddings You Won’t Believe” argues that WoW (World of Warcraft) offers a range of ways that players can form and maintain online relationships in the game “Marriage is just the next step”. The rest of the article is a series of videos and narratives of some of their favourite weddings. The interesting point for me in this article is the variety of forms that weddings take.

Two further article by Tizzi Canucci titled Love in a Virtual World Girl with a Virtual Camera (source) opens with a wonderful description of how I have come to see and appreciate being online and virtually with others The enchantment is in the meeting of minds over distance, the imagined physical, aware of but not seen. The caress through the whisper of ether the touch of an idea, the merest flicker, a response that is mediated, intrigued, curious. The reason this quote stands out for me is it is less evaluative about the outcomes and consequences of relationships it focuses on the betweenness of people in relation and collaborating together.

From the same author Rituals of Relationships, and the Ordinariness of being Online Girl with a Virtual Camera (source) inspired me to recreate the featured image of this article as it captures the experience of being together and working on the creation of relationships. The mundane and every day is where we become who we are online and how we form and maintain relationships and its the apparently trivial and perhaps even irrelevant rituals of life.

As a counsellor the idea of a therapeutic relationship is central and in my own virtual world practice I am starting to create spaces and places for me and my clients to meet and develop our relationship. Virtual worlds in my own practice and experience affords the building of relationships leveraging virtual world affordances (Dalgarno and Lee). For example, my own experience of virtual world friendships and online relationships has been a largely positive experience.

Meeting and getting to know people I would never have encountered without being on the internet and part of virtual world communities. One observation I have become acutely aware of recently is the ability to misunderstand each other using text based communication. This takes negotiation and investment on the side of both parties to (a) want to repair the rupture or misunderstanding and (b) self reflective awareness to notice when misunderstandings are happening.

All the articles in one way or another present a view of human relationships online that engage people in practices, routines and real life relational institutions. Focusing on this level I feel mitigates the tendency to make all or nothing statements as the picture is more nuanced and subtle than that. The picture that springs to mind in the one attached to the Tizzy Canucci article about rituals of relationship as this for me best sums up the investment, time and energy people invest, including myself on virtual world specifically and online relationships generally. The either/or, all/nothing, good/bad, fatal/nurturing are helpful in analysis and for clarity but inevitably they have to be combined to allow a view of difference, commitment and maintenance of online and virtual relationships.

A few closing questions: what are appropriate relationships in virtual worlds? how does the online/virtual relationship differ to the offline one? Are online relationships as real or as authentic as offline ones? these are but some of the questions I will consider as I progress through my training.

If you have any comments I would be happy to hear them use the comment form at the bottom of this blog. Can therapy and therapeutic relationships be formed and developed using the tools of virtual worlds? For example as part of our work we create a space that is meaningful to them. Import pictures, change the space with things and virtual objects. Can a therapeutic conversation include a joint activity moving away from a consultation room to a therapeutic space. With the boundaries of the therapy room widening to extend to the edge of a region on a private grid, like Lighthouse Point.

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