Does Virtual Cheating Still Count?

Online or in real life, experts say the rules of relationships are shifting.

ByABC News
August 13, 2007, 9:16 AM

Aug. 13, 2007 — -- From the comfort of their homes and with just a few clicks of a mouse, virtual universe residents can do just about anything they want.

Second Life, an online world that lets users navigate through a digital planet, has a functioning economy with its own currency, an array of employment opportunities and a bustling social scene, nightclubs included.

And, for those looking for virtual intimacy, residents of Second Life can connect with other users, known as "avatars."

The universe, which has a population of more than 8 million, has seen approximately 35,796 of its residents engage in partnerships, according to Linden Lab, the developer of Second Life. Partnerships are akin to marriage and participants indicate these on avatar user profiles.

Sometimes these online unions, marked by instant message communication and even virtual sex, lead to real-life phone talk, meetings and all the activities that may ensue from that.

For Heart, a 37-year-old woman on Second Life who asked to use her avatar's name, a relationship that began in the virtual world is now part of her real life. Her two-year online relationship led to in-person meetings and eventually a real-world partnership.

Second Life led to troubles in the relationship with her boyfriend at the time, Heart told ABC News. Heart said she eventually left her boyfriend for her Second Life partner.

"[Joe] filled all the gaps that were missing in my real-life relationships," said Heart. "My real-life boyfriend used to walk past the screen and see what was happening and I used to tell him it was no big deal and it was just a game. I felt guilty about it."

While Heart said that she and Joe had sex in Second Life, she said they found it more entertaining than sexually stimulating.

Even those who never meet their Second Life mates may encounter difficulties with their flesh-and-blood partners.

Last week, The Wall Street Journal published a story about Ric Hoogestraat, a Phoenix man whose wife, Sue, is growing tired of his continued interested in Second Life. Much to Sue's dismay, Hoogestraat's avatar had gone as far as marrying another avatar on Second Life.