It's not that I haven't already wandered far and wide in the better-than-reality landscape of video games like Bully, which let me relive high school, this time as a cool guy with lots of make-out possibilities.
But I wasn't prepared for the self-reflection that came along with my graduation to the virtual universe of unlimited fake sex experiences through avatar intercourse. The question kept nagging me: did my initial attraction to all those virtual orifices mean I was losing interest in my own fleshy existence? And what's the cultural significance of copulating via cartoon symbols of ourselves?
"We have these weird sorts of relationships that we don't have precedents for,' explains Ohio University Telecommunications professor Mia Consalvo. Avatar sex, she says, is a bonus because "it doesn't punish for experimenting.'
And experiment I do. Taking stock of my digital virginity, I sit down to some Second Life, which claims a citizenry of 2 million, though some caution that that number includes mere tourists. After struggling with broadband requirements, I finally get myself logged on and am suddenly plopped onto an orientation island where other newbies are being birthed.
Here I am, alone in a new world, trying to figure out how my limbs work, how to speak and, as I discover quickly, how to take off my clothes. I set off to find a brothel.
Second Life has all kinds of diversions, and the computer manipulations needed for sex get boring pretty quickly. Instead, I head to RedLightCenter.com, a website created exclusively for those who wish to "act out their most intense and wildest private experiences.'
The site mimics Second Life when it comes to an online economy in which you can trade real money for virtual fake boobs and genitalia. But this world is much less complex. After logging in, I discover that my avatar's name is, sadly, "PressPass.' She's a tall brunette with large breasts. I don't choose to be a woman; this is what I'm handed, but I keep her, as no doubt many other guys decide to do in the spirit of experimentation.
I do make her a blond, presuming they still have more fun, and change into a lacier outfit, since I don't have all day to seduce someone.
First stop: the Passion Pit. Giggles are my immediate response when I see little figures doing it missionary style and hear serious orgasms pumping through my headphones.
I manage to get my clothes off, but can't figure out why my character won't join in. The $20 per month VIP cost of unlocking all the naughtiest features might have something to do with this neutering, so out comes the credit card.
Now fully functional, I engage in a conversation with two girls and a guy in the pit. The girls tell me to watch them. They find a bed and proceed to chat dirty to each other, describing where their avatars are putting fingers and tongues.
I'm left with the dude. He propositions me for a quickie, and next thing I know the screen shows our cartoon avatars having sex - perhaps the creepiest thing I've seen. At one side of the screen are a slew of position options. Understanding I'm new, he takes care of all that. Before I know it, he's done and gone, but not without a 10-second snuggle.
As I get ready to leave, someone engages me in a chat. I turn around to see a tall dark girl with platinum hair. I guess it's time for some lesbian action. I'm given the option of using a strap-on, and off we go. She seems to enjoy it and tells me (s)he's about to spray her keyboard. That's where reality kicks in.
I'm weirded out by the prospect of some fat hairy guy getting off somewhere in rural Texas, but being polite, I fake an orgasm, thank her and leave.
Soon I discover the Bareback Bordello, where you can buy services from pros and use the BDSM rooms and dolls. But it's not even noon yet, and I don't want to overdo it, not to mention the fact that I'm slowly realizing I'm losing my hard-on for cartoons.
Obviously, not everyone does, because there's a lot of folks in this world who seem to know their way around. A busload of academics out there are trying to explain the phenomenon. Some say the titillation of sending your avatar trolling for sex is just part of the attraction - the rest is the esteem you cop when your graphic self develops online notoriety.
But how does this online/offline identity actually work? Stanford PhD student Nick Yee points me to his website, featuring a study he co-authored called The Unbearable Likeness Of Being Digital. It argues that avatars have massive appeal because even though we love our virtual identities, we long for embodiment.
The authors also show how online social interaction mirrors that on terra firma. Male avatars talking to males, for example, maintain less eye contact than two females chatting it up, and guys keep greater interpersonal distance with each other than girls do.
This thin veil between digitality and reality turned into a major issue in 1993 in a game called LamdaMOO. A character called Mr. Bungle wrote subprograms that forced other characters in the environment to perform sexual acts on each other without their consent. The experience left some players with real emotional distress.
I ask Alex Yenni, a Second Life rep (the parent company is Linden Labs), whether players can technically rape each other.
"You can't kill someone," he starts, trailing into PR mode and evading the question. "Maybe you want to flesh that out and put it in an e-mail?' I send the e-mail and am told Linden Labs has "moved on" from answering my questions.
Some out there worry about this immersion in a parallel sex universe. "The line between virtual and actual is very thin and getting thinner and thinner,' says psychologist David Marcus of the Silicon Valley Psychotherapy Center. "It's like a Pandora's box," he warns.
Cyber jaunts become the mechanism by which people address the sadness, despair or fear in real life. But the fact that people don't realize they're therapeutically treating themselves compounds the problem. "It's like taking medicine when you think you're taking candy," he says.
RedLightCenter.com spokesperson Serena Williams doesn't deal with medical metaphors. The site, she enthuses, "caters to just about anybody. You create who you want to be.'
But maybe what I want to be can't be expressed in my little toon creature. And that's how my experiment ends: with the understanding that this isn't for me. The sloppy chat grammar of virtual flirtation, the below-average sim sex - there's simply no logical reason for me to ever log on again. But who's that rational?
Additional Audio Clips
Dr. Richard Bartle, professor is co-creator of the first virtual world - a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD) - in 1978. He discusses the trend of virtual worlds.