-[The Aberrant Gamer is a weekly, somewhat NSFW column by Leigh Alexander, dedicated to the kinks and quirks we gamers tend to keep under our hats-- those predilections and peccadilloes less commonly discussed in conventional media.]

Last month, an article in the Wall Street Journal generated some considerable buzz. It was the story of a man whose marriage to his real-world wife was suffering in favor of his Second Life marriage. The virtual “marriage”, between a middle-aged biker guy and a woman he’s never actually met, cost the two of them hundreds of real-world dollars in gifts and in-world investments -- the couple owns a Second Life business selling lingerie, and have built a number of social and business relationships with other avatars. More significantly, though, it was costing them hours and hours of their real-world time, and for the man profiled in the article, it was seriously threatening his relationship with his flesh-and-blood wife.

"It's really devastating," the 58-year-old wife told the WSJ. "You try to talk to someone or bring them a drink, and they'll be having sex with a cartoon." She later joined a support group called EverQuest Widows, for women who’ve lost their husbands to an online game, and her children are trying to get their mother to move out.

She doesn’t want to leave, though. She told the WSJ her husband is a “good person” who’s just “fallen down a rabbit hole.” She can understand, she says, how her husband might want to re-live his life as a 25-year-old man, access experiences that he can’t in his mundane life, at his somewhat advanced age.

Sounds familiar – historically, our culture knows exactly what it means when a middle-aged man suddenly buys a sports car and starts “working late.” But there are innumerable reasons why our society is confounded when asked whether the EverQuest Widows are victims of adultery. Is it cheating?

Second Life is generally held up as the poster child for dysfunctional Internet relationships, but in this era where personalization, customization, Web 2.0 and social networking are the hot phrases, most MMOs and online games provide, at the very least, some method for game characters representative of real humans to connect. Add in the fact that most games now have their own virtual economies, and there’s real money to be spent on virtual trysts. Even if an MMO doesn’t provide a method by which to have visual, virtual sex between avatars, how would a man feel if he learned his wife had used the family money to buy an in-world friend some virtual accessories?

The MMO industry in Asia is much larger and much more firmly entrenched than it is on our shores – ahead of us in the micropayment model and in massive install bases, they’ve had a bit more time to refine the appeal of their games for their audience. And they’ve got love down to a science, with many, if not most, of these games providing a convention for in-world marriage, often tied in neatly with game objectives. Some require the purchase of a virtual item to seal the bond, and there’s often a ceremony involved, too, just as if it were real. Microtransactions are generally cheap – but is two bucks too much, if it’s spent by your spouse to “wed” a partner that isn’t you?

There are arguments to be made on either side of the aisle as to whether in-game love constitutes real-world cheating, but it’s clearly an issue that’s generating a lot of talk. On the heels of the Wall Street Journal piece, interactive marketing and tech agency Spunlogic released a survey gauging people’s reactions to a situation wherein a hypothetical individual said “I love you” or “I want to marry you” to someone other than that individual’s partner or spouse. The extenuating circumstances of the situation were presented across a spectrum that gradually placed degrees of separation between the supposed adulterers, with face-to-face interaction at one end, virtual world interaction at the other, and phone, written letters, emails and text messages in between.

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90 percent of the survey respondents said they’d consider that “definitely unfaithful,” if it occurred face-to-face, but only 58 percent agreed those actions constituted infidelity in a game. Moreover, perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a gender divide – only 46 percent of men, contrasted with 63 percent of women, thought online world interactions were “definitely unfaithful.” Those aged 24 and younger were more likely to tolerate technologically-mediated infidelity, while respondents who were themselves in committed relationships were less likely to.

“Infidelity, a behavior normally deemed unacceptable in human-human interaction, becomes more acceptable when interactions are mediated by various technologies," said Dr. Melissa Read, Spunlogic's director of behavioral research. "What other socially inappropriate behaviors might be perceived as acceptable when produced in technology-mediated interactions? And, more importantly, why?"

Why indeed? The divide created by digital media and gaming creates a world where the humanity of the participants is less real. It’s socially unacceptable, of course, to kill, steal, or cheat on your wife, but we do it in games, in our strange little worlds where the things we see often look like humans, but aren’t. In online games specifically, the digital figures we see and interact with are representative of humans, having actual people behind them that we can talk to – and yet, they’re still not exactly people in and of themselves.

This column has previously expressed the perspective that games provide interesting environments to test our reactions to various experiences, explore concepts of personal values, and experience circumstances and situations that are not available to us in our normative lives. Nonetheless, they’re still only games. It’s not necessarily indicative, in other words, of real-world violence, predation, amorality or heroism, if we take certain actions as a character in a game, on the closed world of a console or single-player campaign.

And the jilted wife from the Wall Street Journal – she allowed, didn’t she, that her husband was just exploring, having vicarious experiences? And yet, there was a "devastating" real-world impact on her life.

Online play throws a fat monkey wrench into our comfortable relationship with gaming. MMOs, virtual worlds and multiplayer games entitle players to that freedom to explore in the same fashion, within the framework of a fake world populated by avatars. But behind each avatar is another human explorer interested in the same suspended-reality situations as you – and is it okay to conduct that exploration when other feeling human beings are involved?

It’s fun to punch out rude old ladies on GTA; nobody’s actually getting hurt. And when another player takes you out in, say, Halo 3, you can try again. But if that other player were to call you a “fag” (scratch that, when that other player does) or mock your skills, don’t you feel slightly annoyed? If you get a suggestive PM in an MMORPG, are you immune to arousal?

Games always have, and always will cause us annoyance and arousal alternately. That’s a given. But does it make a difference when it’s caused not by the game, but by another person’s actions, another person’s words – whether or not they’re filtered through a game?

[Leigh Alexander is the editor of Worlds in Motion and writes for Destructoid, Paste, Gamasutra and her blog, Sexy Videogameland. She can be reached at leigh_alexander1 AT yahoo DOT com.]