Unitended Consequences of Covid-19

My Lockdown Romance

I am a bit of a geek. This is something that I have always known about myself.

In March 2007, I started dabbling in virtual worlds. I ran a nightclub, bought and sold land, made things. I did many of the usual things people who inhabit virtual worlds do. I had a group of friends from those early years that endured, for the most part. Although much like real life, some disappeared never to be seen again. Sometimes you had disagreements with people. Virtual living is just living, after all.

A pandemic has taught everyone that there is only reality, not virtual reality. For those of us who have been living a more immersive online experience for over a decade, this is not really a new idea.

When I was socialising in a virtual world, it was not mainstream. There was a brief period in 2007–2008 when CSI, Duran Duran, and Suzanne Vega elevated virtual worlds to the mainstream, but it was short-lived. Although virtual worlds remain niche, doing things online is now a part of daily reality for most people.

I like to think we were pioneers.

One of my friends, who I shall rename Carson for this article even though they have consented to me writing it, was a US veteran. I live in the UK. Carson entered and exited my life as work and family life ebbed and flowed but we were consistently close whenever time permitted a virtual hang out. Unbeknown to me, as our friendship was platonic, that avatar was used by two people, a guy, and a girl. This was not done for nefarious purposes, and more a case of the account being set up that way when it was created out of curiosity. It then became harder to explain as time went on.

I was oblivious over the years we knew each other and always believed I was talking to a woman. Admittedly, the woman was a bit butch and into girls, sometimes with comedy boobs. Some would say that many women in virtual worlds create avatars with comedy boobs and bottoms, anyway. Some would say that women in the real world do that, too. There is a school of thought that hypothesises those kinds of avatars are mostly male in real life, but that is a whole other subject entirely.

Over the next 13-years, my friends and I went through the trials and tribulations of both real and virtual life. We were together, but separate, I suppose. We drifted in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes disappearing forever, sometimes returning. I think that Carson had been missing for 8 or 9 years by the time lockdown began. I kept a birthday gift from him (although back then, her) from 2008. It was ABBA vinyl. I also kept the Fed Ex box it came in, and never really had any idea why. The weekend before Carson returned, virtually speaking, was heralded by my cats knocking the box from my shelf onto the floor. I did not like to think about Carson much, as I had lost all contact by that point and this had been the longest, they had been incognito.

I was working on a themed virtual event when Carson arrived on my virtual land just after lockdown had begun in March 2020. We had the unique opportunity that lockdown presented to catch up, although geography meant we were now 8 hours apart in terms of time zone. I was working from home in the UK, making it easier for us to make up for lost time as there was no time spent commuting. We got to find out what kind of life we were both living now, but that time spent together also meant that the pretence of Carson being female began to slowly disintegrate. It had become to feel to me as if our relationship was evolving into something else, or so I thought. My attempts at having a conversation about what was happening between us were always rebuffed.

It was maddening.

It was at that time that I began to wonder whether a person was a male, female, or non-binary, even mattered, from a relationship point of view. On the face of it, I was considering embarking on a relationship with a woman, but I had only ever dated men. I was not bothered by this, but it did raise interesting questions about sexual identity I had not really anticipated, least of all in my forties. There were no clear answers on that.

It was just one of those things that happened.

There were times I used to find myself thinking that Carson reacted or responded to things in unexpected ways, often as a man would. It was something quite nuanced. There were things I said, expecting a reaction from the old Carson circa 2007, but the 2021 Carson reacted very differently.

I tried to put it down to the passage of time and lockdown changing all of us somehow, but I found it quite difficult to let it go.

Over time, I became frustrated but could not really understand why. During an unusual disagreement, I did the avatar equivalent of storming out, which is logging off. When I returned a day or two later, Carson was ready to do some truth-telling.

It was at that moment, I learned about the shared account, that Carson was male. The other user of the account had been his real-life female romantic partner, who had died suddenly, resulting in his grief-stricken disappearance for so many years. That also explained why I kept expecting different reactions to things I said, that never came. I was expecting the kind of reaction his female partner would have given.

It was difficult, and on occasions tinged with sadness because I had learned an aspect of that friendship had died when Carson’s partner died. She had been someone I both knew and did not know and to a certain extent, I missed aspects of her, although I kept it in perspective. There was no romantic deceit because we had only ever been platonic friends. Avatars in virtual worlds frequently present as the opposite gender to real life. For a variety of reasons, some obvious and some more nuanced. Gender fluidity and even sexual fluidity was mainstream in virtual worlds long before it was in the “real” world. The only betrayal felt was in terms of our friendship and lockdown provided the time and space for us to work through that, uninterrupted. Carson “transitioned” to male in a virtual world with the help of our friends, Adria and Exxx.

Something that is much easier to do in pixels than in life.

Carson becoming male overnight surprised none of our friends and caused no issues at all. It was just accepted. A testament to how inclusive people can be in a virtual world, without any of the spite and vitriol you witness every day on social media, in so-called “real” life.

Over time, once we had started to recover from the revelation that all I had believed to be the case, was not, we began to just “be” and that state of being became a fledgling relationship that spilled over into real life. You could say that it was always real life and there was never any distinction or separation between real and virtual. I do not know. I do not have all the answers on that, and it happened to me. Fast forward to 2021, and we are planning to cross an ocean to live together in the same time zone.

That is my head-scratcher of a lockdown love story. Peculiar, isn’t it?

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