Virtual infidelity, virtual spy

For a decade now, cybercheating has been an ethically weird question in online behavior. What precisely, constitutes, cheating? Hot chat with someone outside your marriage? Webcamming yourself for other people? Googlestalking ex-spouses?

Now there’s a new dimension to think about: Avatar relationships. Inside online multiplayer games, plenty of people have virtual hookups. I’ve talked to women who have virtual husbands inside Everquest, who they’ve “married” in well-attended online virtual marriages, and with whom they share their virtual property. Yet these women are also married in real life; sometimes their husbands know they’ve got online partners, and don’t care.

Psychologists have long noticed that the combination of distance and pseudoanonymity on the Internet tends to unlock people’s ids — hence all the flame wars, the UPPER CASE SHOUTING, and the rampant flirting in chat rooms. I think the addition of 3D avatars in games adds a new dimension to this behavior, because people can get pretty psychoactively charged by their new bodies. When I went into the online world There for the first time, I was kind of stunned at how hot all the avatars were; they were like some freakishly potent remix of anime and J. Crew sensibilities. So it didn’t surprise me to discover that online cheating in virtual worlds has begun to boom, and that many real-life partners aren’t too thrilled about it.

In fact, over at his brilliant New World Notes blog, James Wagner Au — the first journalist to be “embedded” in a virtual world, Second Life — recently reported on a new phenomenon: Virtual-world detectives who you can pay to put a tail on your partner and find out if he or she is cheating. One of the detectives is a woman; she’s pictured above. Another is Bruno Buckenberger, who describes his job thusly:

To prove their case, Bruno prefers that his agents take an incriminating screenshot with the target— or just as good, have the agent teleport the client right to their location, to catch their unfaithful partner in a compromising position.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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