Damien Fate is a young man from a small town in England, and he's customized a triggering system which incorporates audio clips of his real life voice into Second Life. So when his avatar laughs, for example, you hear his actual laugh, and when his avatar says "Yes", you also hear him actually say "Yes". And because he has the deep voice of a young British man, when he speaks these triggered words, it's a little like hearing the voice of, say, Orlando Bloom, suddenly ringing in your earphones.
The latest audio clip I hear coming out of Damien's avatar is the real life name of the young woman who lives in the American Midwest-- the woman he is about to meet for the first time, when he leaves England tomorrow, and flies across the Atlantic and most of North America, to reach her.
When he originally says her name, I look around, confused, because all I can see are him and Washu Zebrastripe, standing on the balcony outside their home. "Who the hell's [she]?"
"Sorry," says Fate, grinning. "That's Washu's real name. I dont want to call her Washu in real life. So I use it instead of Washu, even in-game."
"Gee," I observe, "you really made sure you did a sexy-ass voice capture to say her name."
Damien laughs. Washu glances at me. "He does it for all the girls," she says.
"I'll be travelling to the States on the 9th of September and staying there for a week," Damien tells me earlier. This comes after a couple months of dating, and many more months as friends.
"[W]e've always known of each other," he says, "but we didn't really hang out much until we started playing another game (Lineage 2), and we became closer friends in Second Life because of it. We got to talking almost every day and staying up to very late hours-- at least for me, being in the UK."
I understand the appeal of relationships that begin in online worlds, even those that are powerful enough to inspire people to travel a few miles to meet each other. Going across the country, let alone across the ocean from another country, however, is something else. And because Eddie Escher and Fallingwater Cellardoor only had the Atlantic to traverse, to meet each other, Damien's impending trip might be the longest geographic trip taken, just for two Second Life residents to meet each other. (At least, that's what I thought, until I met a German disk jockey who's about make his own trip to the West Coast, to meet another resident-- more on them in coming weeks.) In any case, it's a long way to go, to meet someone.
"So what's the attraction?" I ask Damien.
"Well," Fate replies, "the good thing about getting to know someone in Second Life, is that the physical side doesn't get in the way. So you find out a lot more about a person and connect on a deeper level.
"Washu is an amazing person in my eyes. She is very open-minded, can make anyone laugh, she listens when you talk and isn't afraid to talk herself. Someone who everyone can love within a few minutes of talking with her." On her birthday, because he's a skilled artist and architect, he built Washu Zebrastripe a store to sell her avatar wigs.
Of course, it isn't just a relationship based on a connection of personalities, and they eventually revealed more about themselves, beyond their avatars. "Since we started talking, we have also exchanged pictures (even though they're also in our Second Life profiles), talked using Internet chat programs and used Web cameras with each other."
"Were you surprised by what she looked like when you first saw her real life photos?"
"Well, in all honesty," Damien Fate says, laughing, "I was expecting her to be black! Because of her avatar." In Second Life, Washu looks less like the fair-skinned brunette she really is, and more like, say, a backup dancer from a 50 Cent video. "It wouldn't have mattered either way," Damien adds. "But as it happens, she is also a very attractive person."
For Washu, the attraction had more to do than a matching of personalities-- she had to get past his avatar, to really start falling. "We didn't really hit it off 'til after we started Web-camming," she tells me in Insant Message. "So I'd say it had to do a lot with my feelings." With a few days before Damien gets on the plane to meet her, she's eager, though a bit nervous. He's actually not the first resident she's met in person. "I've met a ton," she says. "Chip Midnight, Spider Mandala, Kensuke, Pete Fats, Devyn Grimm... it's very exciting to meet someone in real life. You get to find out their first life, what they look like, how they sound, etc. The difference with Damien, of course, is that we are now dating. So meeting him will be an extra special occasion."
I wonder if they take much advantage of the customized avatar animations, that enable hugging, along with pretty much any other form of physical affection. "Now that we are dating," Washu says, "our avatars do hug a lot, but we mostly just talked [before]... I just can't say I act out with my avatar like that too much."
"Because my avatar isnt the real me," Washu tells me. "It just doesn't feel right... Some of the hug animations are really great! But it honestly just makes me want to hug Damien in person so much more. It's a bit difficult, with the distance and all."
And again on this topic, Damien has a slightly different take: "I have to say this Second Life really, really helps with the long distance. You can chat in a program, with voice or video, but nothing makes someone feel more there than when you can see your virtual representations standing next to each other, or embraced in a hug."
And so Damien is making his way to see her, tomorrow. When he gets there, he'll stay in a hotel near her home, and see her every day. When he tells me what state she lives in, I have to laugh a little.
"[Y]ou're going to the HEART of America!" I tell him.
"Yes," he says, "not for the first time either. I used to have a relationship with an Alabamian many years ago. So, I know what to expect... I don't think either [states] take a shining to Brits. Or 'outsiders' I should say."
"Nah, they're just a bit intimidated," I suggest. "Everyone here like Brits!"
"Well, I am really fond of Americans too," Damien says, smiling. "I always love the complete culture shock when I go over there. I'm always thrown off by the fact that the languages are so similar, but things are so different. The foods, the weather, the customs, the way people live. The first thing that hit me was the weather, but that's to be expected. Then there was the sheer distance between places. I am used to living in country towns, small places, but even then there's always a shop nearby, within walking distance. Travelling to the bank in America meant an hour long drive-- and you can't not learn how to drive over there."
"So how serious do you think this will become?"
"Well," Fate tells me, "we both think things are going really well [and] this visit will be a good chance for both of us to see how well we get along in real life, as it's very different meeting someone in real life as [compared] to Second Life.
"If things go well when we meet," he says, grinning, "I can see our relationship lasting for a long, long time."
"Long distance, even?"
"Yes," says Damien Fate, "but if things go as well as they are now, then Washu is really considering moving over to the UK!"
They promise to tell me what became of their meeting, once it's happened-- and hopefully, also where they intend to go, after they've put aside their avatars to be with each other. And I have to wonder what will. Sometimes, being in an online world gives you the safety to express who you really are; sometimes, being face to face with someone provokes too much fear of rejection, and there's an awkwardness or a forced cheerfulness that is, paradoxically enough, even more artificial.
And then again, sometimes relationships naturally flow from avatar form to one that's fully fleshed out, and lasting. Since I know and like Washu Zebrastripe and Damien Fate, I can only wish the third way for them. What actually happens, however, awaits a future entry in New World Notes.
"I'm excited of course," Washu tells me, five days from the visit, standing there with Damien on the balcony of their home, "but I wonder what the poor boy will do while I'm at work all day."
"I will be fine," Fate assures her. "There's a park I can visit and a, uh, video store."
"And liquor store," Washu points out.
"Yes, so I can get smashed and watch movies all day in the park."
Washu guffaws. "No way, the cops are Mafia here. They will bust you and deport you."
Fate frowns. "I better behave, then."
So after a day of delays and a long flight, Damien Fate found himself standing alone at an airport terminal somewhere in the American Midwest, more than four thousand miles from his home in England, waiting to meet a woman he'd fallen in love with months ago, but had never actually met. And for a moment there, without even knowing, she was closer to him than she'd ever been before.
"He was lookin' the other way in the airport when I came up to him," Washu Zebrastripe tells me, "And he stood up and turned around, and there I was. Like two inches from him.
"If he was nervous at all," Washu observes, "I scared it outta him."
"Scared me to death," Damien agrees. "But we hugged straight away."
I'm standing with the couple in their Second life home, but now that Damien is back in England, this is the closest they'll be together for the time being. Fate slips a series of digital photos into my archive, and when I open them, a cascade of images appear, documenting their time together in the material realm. (Which in this case, means a hotel near Washu's home.) I feel obliged to provide a running commentary as I flip through the images:
"Washu in the hotel!... Washu and Damien hugging!... ["We did that a lot," Fate interjects.] On the bed chillin'!.... Posing at the hotel, Damien looking somewhat like Elijah Wood in this shot... Damien with long sleeves, Washu looking beguiling!... Ah, the strong man pose, holding her up!" ["We had the same shot in Second Life," Fate explains, "so we did it real life."]
But since the story is fully theirs, perhaps it's better to let them finish it in their own words...
ON WHAT SURPRISED THEM MOST, SEEING EACH OTHER FOR THE FIRST TIME
Her eyes. They weren't as clear on camera, but they really grabbed
me in real life. The colour is a kind of grey/green which goes great
with her auburn hair.
Seeing her on Webcam and in pictures so much before meeting, there was no great big surprise when seeing her that first time-- other than that she looked even better... [Y]ou can only see someone online in two dimensions, it's not quite real...
So you build up an image in your mind of them in real life.
When you dream, you wonder. Is she really that pretty in real life? Is it even possible? I was pleasantly surprised by seeing first hand that, yes, she really is that beautiful.
But the main thing [about her eyes] was how I felt when I looked into them. It was a feeling I had waited for for a long time... We were already in love, it just felt like falling in love again when I saw her for the first time.
Hum... uh... Probably how comfortable he was with me, I expected him to be more shy about everything. It is a bit hard to tell how forward a person will be when you meet them online, you know?
But was she shy?
Hum, well. I was me. That's hard to explain, but I don't really think I was too shy about it. I mean, it's Damien. What do I need to be shy about?
ON WHAT THEY DID THEIR FIRST DAY TOGETHER, FROM THE AIRPORT ONWARD
Well, we ran outta the airport, 'cause he's been in the damn things for two days! We went to my car, and he tried to get in on the wrong side. I was very excited though!
I talked a bit about how I was glad he finally got here, and how bad I felt that I made him have to be in airport hell for two days.
And then we drove to the hotel. He was worried it wouldn't let him in at 11pm, and where he would go if they didn't. Well, they let us in, but they asked a lot of questions... His address, which was way too long for the computer, and they kept misspelling it. It wouldn’t take his zipcode at all, and his phone number was too long! They kept joking with us, and it was very amusing.
We got to the room and he asked to take a shower... I sat on the bed and watched TV. When he got out, we said "Yay!" And drove to get something to eat. Then we got to the restaurant and sat down... the waitress tried to mimic his accent, which she couldn't do. We laughed, and we grabbed each others' hands, and he kissed mine. It was just so exciting to see him in person. A relief, even. Because I've wanted to for SO long.
... and then [we] did some shopping together. First night together, and already acting all domestic.
ON THEIR FIRST REAL KISS
We were both hugging each other on my first night there. It was really late, about 4AM, I think. Washu layed down in bed and so did I. Then we kissed.
Then I fell asleep.
ON TAKING THINGS SLOW
Well, slow or fast depends on your views of online relationship. I think online things can become deeper quicker, but I can't say if we were going too slow or too fast... it was more a case of we were going at a pace which felt right for us. We knew after a couple of weeks of dating online that it would be cool to meet up, so that's when I bought the tickets forty nine days in advance. We thought that would give us even more time to get to know each other while we waited for the day to come when met... We went out on a LOT of dates, though.
We did. And we went to my mother's house. We went out to eat a lot. Fondue, Mexican, Mongolian... A walk along the river, to my favorite part of the city.
We even went to see a musical! The Producers by Mel Brooks. It was awesome, though. We got dressed up all smart for it, and were warmly welcomed for it.
A great final date. That was on Thursday-- I had to leave Friday morning.
ON THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING IN-WORLD, NOW THAT THEY KNOW EACH OTHER
I think we're more comfortable with each other, joke around a bit more? It's hard to tell so far, it's only been a few days.
[Being in] Second Life together is pretty much the same as it was before... we've always gotten on very well, so things haven't changed that much. But we're both happier.
ON WHERE THEY GO FROM HERE
Well, I want to go and try to live with him, in the UK. I don't like where I live and I love to travel anyways, so I think it would be fun to go over there. I don't know when it will be, we are working it out at the moment.
All I care about is seeing him again.
Never been [to England]! I’ve been to Canada a few times is all. I'm not scared... the change will be exciting. I can't get a job [there], but I make a bit off of Second Life... I make wigs. I sell a lot of them! I make about L$10,000 a week. Plus I can do little babysitting jobs and stuff that won't require a visa.
Who knows [when I go]! Before Christmas, I hope.
[S]he can legally stay in the UK for six months before having to return home again. But she can fly back to renew the six months visa. We'll be able to do that.
I have a good job in graphic design in real life, but Second Life provides a nice bit of pocket money... [I design] clothes mainly, but the latest things I have made and sold in collaboration with Fizik Baskerville as part of the avalon.brand are Kicks (prim shoes) and the avalon.mobile, which works as a portable photo album attached to your hip.
To legally work in the UK she would need a work permit, but they're difficult to get. Mainly you need to have a job lined up before you even enter the country (which is pretty hard) and there are sponsorships too, I think. It's not really as one way as that, we both also earn from Second Life.