In real life, AJ Bayer resides in Canada and has a serious girlfriend. Yet every week for more than six hours a day, Bayer took on the digital form of Myth — a dreadlocked tabby cat looking for love in the online game entitled Second Life.
Since Linden Labs launched Second Life in 2003, the SimCity-like computer program has grown to become the Internet’s largest virtual reality community. Players are represented inside Second Life by personalized characters, known as avatars.
“I’m part of the Furry fandom,” Bayer said, referring to his avatar’s animal origins. “To being with just other Furries, no, I have been with other races before and would be willing to do so again.”
Hoping to find a digital date from among the more than 1.4 million active users on Second Life, Bayer signed up on AvMatch.com.
Started in January 2008, AvMatch was the first free online dating Web site created exclusively for Second Life participants and their avatars. Today, more than 2,000 players from 35 countries have registered through either the organization’s site or their store inside Second Life, according to staff.
“In less than a year, I've received many thanks from members via e-mail about their successful experiences,” said Marc, the founder of the site who asked that his last name not be used for privacy reasons. "My favorite one is on the testimonials page, and it's basically a story about a woman who found 'the most amazing man' through AvMatch.com. Without the site, she says, 'I never would have met my true soul mate.' Their relationship apparently is a real world one now as well. They've been together now over six months.”
Before AvMatch daters can begin e-mailing each other through the site, they must first fill out an online profile detailing information such as their hobbies, languages spoken and avatar’s species (human, alien, robot, “furry,” etc.). Users also list whether they are looking for a real-life relationship or just one confined to Second Life.
While some members upload their real picture to their profile, the majority only post photos of their avatar.
“AvMatch looked like an interesting way to make friends and maybe find a mate that I would spend the rest of my Second Life days with,” Bayer said.
He declined to say whether his girlfriend knew about his avatar dating activities.
Others, like 40-year-old Geoff from the United Kingdom, signed up for the site for the sole purpose of seeking out a real-life soul mate. Prior to joining AvMatch, Geoff had been in a relationship with a woman he first began courting in Second Life.
“I think that if people are like me, then they look for a relationship in Second Life, because they don't have much luck finding them in real life,” said Geoff, who like many Second Life users, asked that his last name not be revealed.
In his past relationship, Geoff and his lady love got together in Second Life at dance clubs and at his digital house before finally meeting person to person. He believes he has had more success finding real-world romance through Second Life, because he isn’t immediately evaluated by physical or financial characteristics.
“It's another way for people who don't fit into 'normal' society to enjoy the same things as everyone else,” he said. “In Second Life, I don't have any problem with people judging me on my looks, or not being any good at dancing with a girl, or not being able to afford to buy her a meal.”
Bill Miller, a relationship psychotherapist, views avatar dating as a detriment to the development of singles’ social skills. He believes daters shouldn’t retreat into a fake world to compensate for a lack of confidence they feel with their real-life selves.
“We’re all kind of subject to this onslaught of feeling that we need something else to make us more than and not focusing on our authentic self, not trusting the idea that we can go anywhere and meet a person and hook up that way as opposed to something with a little more glitz to it,” Miller said of avatar dating. “I don’t want to poo poo it. If that’s where people find love, then more power to it.”