Sexting, flirting on Facebook, tweeting a picture of one's bulge—digital media has expanded the means for infidelity so quickly that it's not always clear what can be called unfaithful. Chatting with a cam girl? Signing up for Ashley Madison, but never meeting anyone?
"In the old days," said Rob Weiss, a sex therapist and lecturer who's written several books on technology and relationships, "I knew what cheating was. There was lipstick on the collar, you know, it was a physical thing that you could see and observe."
But despite what looks like a growing cultural acceptance of, at the very least, porn (which by some estimates, one in three women get into on the weekly) and on its more expansive end the idea that some digitally mediated sex could exist alongside the smellier, messier realities of intimacy IRL, there seems to be one type of affair that still drives people bonkers: sex in Second Life.
It's not just Second Life, of course. Gaming worlds, where some players spend significant chunks of their lives, have only gotten more massive and more social, creating more opportunities for virtual romance—and, if you're boo'ed up, digital adultery. In-game unfaithfulness can also bleed into real life: There are a surprising number of stories about husbands leaving their wives for someone they met planning a raid in World of Warcraft.
Not much has changed in public opinion since 2006, when a distraught wife told the Wall Street Journal how devastating it was to try to talk to someone as "they'll be having sex with a cartoon"—by which she meant her husband's Second Life squeeze.
Meanwhile, some players find in-game intimacy, also called erotic roleplay, to be a natural part of experiencing life in a virtual world—and sometimes, their spouse are cool with it.
In-game romantic relationships are even more understudied than other kinds of digitally mediated romance, and what studies do exist tend to skew towards consternation. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Wisconsin set up an adorable little virtual institute in Second Life and surveyed about two hundred and fifty people who were both in committed relationships IRL and in-game.
"What happens in the game world might be hot and sexy, but it has little application to the real world."
They found a "concerning and emotionally seductive image of virtual love" when it turned out respondents were generally just as satisfied in their relationships regardless of whether their Second Life partner and real-life beau were one and the same—in fact, some were happier with their in-game lovers, though that might go with the territory when your second life doesn't involve doing the dishes or dealing with in-laws. And for what it's worth, the idea that online sex and relationships could facilitate fantasy at the expense of the more complicated realities of, well, reality was also of concern to Weiss: He mentioned a study in Japan suggesting over 30 percent of young men were just fine dating their devices, thank you very much.
But when real relationships and in-world gaming romances exist side-by-side, people appear to engage in a fantastic number of arrangements and deploy a broad swath of tactics. In IRC role-plays and WoW forums, partners who are vocal about their in-world sex lives, though they don't want to give their real names, seem pretty nonchalant about their relationships.
One guy I spoke to said he and his partner both have in-game significant others in their long-term IRC role-play, but that they really consider their roles to be authorial, even when it comes to the sex their characters enjoy—it's more about fleshing out the characters than enacting specific fantasies. Others might allow their characters flirtations but strictly prohibit the sexy chat, opting to "fade to black" instead of go into the steamy details.
Julia, a player who's been married eleven years, says she and husband met in a role-play community "so we both understand what [it] is and are comfortable with the separation between in-story and out-of-story." There was never a question that her character's feelings mirrored her own, particularly when it came to romance. Still, when she got into erotic role play specifically, she was worried he might become uncomfortable with it—they created some boundaries (only in-character dirty talk, the sex had to be a part of the larger story) and she gave her husband access to all her chat logs. Years later, she admits it's a "big part of her sexuality" and, while her dude can still check up on her if he wants, he doesn't take the opportunity very often.
"I think we have a sensationalist view of what online sexuality is," said Ashley M. L. Brown, a sex and games researcher and a lecturer at Brunel University London. "We only hear the stories about the couple who gets married or divorced because of an online game."
A few years ago, Brown did an ethnographic study of couples in WoW who engaged in erotic role play, together and separately. What we don't hear, she says, "are stories I heard throughout my research about couples who make sensible compromises like, 'it's okay if you watch porn, I'll erotic role play.' We don't hear about couples who use virtual worlds to stimulate and pleasure each other."
In her interviews, as well as with the gamers I spoke to, the idea of transparent chat logs—as a way to augment a couple's sex life as much as a gesture of trust—came up with some frequency.
Brown also noted that one of the major themes to emerge from her research was the idea that gaming and erotic role play, no matter how sexy, was considered by her subjects to be a fantasy that rarely mapped to reality—an assumption that is perhaps a little more pronounced in gaming than in, say, the conversation around sexting or porn. "What happens in the game world might be hot and sexy," she says, "but it has little application to the real world. Just because it seems fun and sexy to have sex under a waterfall in a game world doesn't mean it will be fun or sexy in the real world. Just because a threesome in-game is fun, doesn't mean the player wants a real threesome."
And though Brown is reluctant to make sweeping analysis of gamers as a class, she does mention in her writings the potential effects of gaming's conventions; cheaters within a gaming context, she theorizes, are "players that are unfaithful to the relationship agreements laid out at the start of play." Perhaps, then, it's a little easier for gamers than the rest of us to draw boundaries around the fantasies they enact online. Or, as one WoW playing glibly told Brown, he doesn't consider his sexy chats online cheating for "the same reason I don't consider murdering someone in role-play murder."