Avatars: Love and Desire in the Digital Age

Images: Brad Swonetz / Redux for Newsweek (left); Courtesy Rhonda Lillie Images: Brad Swonetz / Redux for Newsweek (left); Courtesy Rhonda Lillie

Rhonda Lillie fiddles with a tiny camera on her computer, aiming its lens at her smiling face and curly blond hair. She'll spend the next four hours here, at this wooden desk in her parents' house in Oxnard, Calif. "Hey, babe," she calls out, eyes fixed on the camera. On the screen, her fiancé, Paul Hawkins, grins back, reclining in a T shirt and black boots. The couple talk about their day while Hawkins's teenage sons play computer games behind him. She woke up with a migraine and had to miss her morning sociology class. He jokes about the curried chicken he cooked for dinner: he ate it all, and—he pats his stomach—it's starting to show. Lillie giggles. "We've both gained weight since we started dating," she says.

Lillie and Hawkins met four years ago atop a waterfall overlooking a lush green valley—the kind of magical tableau you find only in romance novels, or in sophisticated virtual universes. The two had stumbled upon each other in Second Life, the 3-D computer world where nearly a million people log in regularly, communicating via digital representations of themselves, or avatars. Hawkins's avatar was tall (very tall: 7 feet 8), with darkened eyes and a towering white Mohawk. But it was his boots that caught Lillie's eye: black, ornamented, dazzling. "The most intricate boots I'd ever seen," she says. Lillie, whose own avatar is porcelain-skinned, with white or black hair depending on her mood, was thunderstruck. "Heart Wishbringer" (that's her avatar's name) and "Joe Stravinsky" (that's his) spent the next three weeks online together, chatting for hours via IM. Then, before they'd ever seen or heard each other's real voices, they got "married" in Second Life, like 43,000 other couples, typing their vows while their avatars stood atop the waterfall where they first met. Then Heart and Joe stripped down to their naked digital bodies and swam in the crisp pool of water below.

The couple has been inseparable ever since—at least in a sense. In the real world, there are oceans between them. Lillie lives in California; Hawkins in Wales. Both are single parents. Neither has much money. Lillie, 39, is divorced, with three children, and she moved back into her parents' home last year so she could finish her college degree. Hawkins, 43, is unmarried and has two kids, including an autistic son. In four years, Lillie and Hawkins have seen each other in the flesh just three times. Their life as a couple exists almost entirely online. In Second Life, they go on dates that would be impossible in the real world. They fly over cities and land on rooftops, go scuba diving on a moment's notice. Physical intimacy is out, but they use the technology to fake it as best they can. They hold hands. They kiss. Sometimes they have virtual sex. (It's possible—though they say watching their avatars knock boots is more comic than erotic.) Outside of Second Life, they use Webcams and Skype, the online voice-video-chat system, to peer into each other's worlds, even when they're just doing daily chores. At night, they hookup headphones, so that even while they sleep, they can hear each other breathing.

They know their relationship sounds odd—and, they admit, it's far from ideal. But beneath all the high-tech gadgetry, behind the Webcams and avatars, is an ordinary—if admittedly geeky—romance between two ordinary people. The only thing extraordinary about Rhonda Lillie and Paul Hawkins's life together is that, at any other moment in history, it would've been impossible. But the couple have found a way to write their own unlikely love story, one that upends all kinds of assumptions about desire and intimacy in the digital age, starting with the big one: that love begins at first sight.

In a fairy tale, it happens fast. Prince Charming and Cinderella spot each other, sparks fly, and a few pages later they're living happily ever after. The senses rule in the real world, too. In evolutionary terms, we're drawn to the beautiful, the fertile and the strong. But what if Prince Charming lives in a land far, far away? Technologies like Second Life are allowing us to rethink what being "together" really means. They're inverting our laws of attraction, thrusting us into a zone where desire can be more abstract than pure physical lust, and where intimacy begins not with a partner's touch, but with the things that usually come much later—the emotional candor that can take years to achieve.

Lillie and Hawkins say they've shared things with each other that they've never told anyone else, and that it's the deepest bond either has felt. Some of that surely has to do with their detachment; but had they met in real life, it might not have been possible. In one survey of gamers in online relationships, 60 percent said they didn't think their unions would've formed in real life because a physical attribute would've turned them off. "Early researchers of the Internet thought it would be impossible to form relationships on the Web because we're not in physical proximity to one another," says Julie Albright, a sociologist at the University of Southern California. "But we've really turned that notion on its head."

Which makes sense: getting to know someone gradually, with patience and attention, seems a whole lot healthier than a drunken proposition in a bar. There are still plenty of folks who think of the Internet as chilly and perverse, but a competing sense of that universe as warm and humane, an instrument of fulfillment, is finding flower as successive generations grow up wired. Gartner Research has estimated that by 2011, four out of five people online—1.6 billion of 2 billion Internet users—will have experimented with a virtual medium like Second Life. According to a 2006 Pew survey, one in 10 Internet users already search for love online, and 15 percent of American adults say they know someone who married or seriously dated an online match. There are 800 active dating sites in the U.S., chasing industry revenue that, according to Jupiter Research, is projected to reach $1.9 billion by 2012. "The Internet has an amazing capacity to allow people to self-sort—to find and engage with like-minded others," says Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein, who has written on politics in the information age. "That will have impacts for courtship and dating that go beyond anything we've ever seen."

Before they met in Second Life, neither Lillie nor Hawkins had dated on the Internet before. They weren't gaming addicts. They weren't even especially tech-savvy. And neither was looking for love; in fact, both were in other relationships when they first met. But as the universe was expanding limitlessly online, the walls of their real lives seemed to be closing in on them. Hawkins spends most of his days confined to the house, caring for his autistic son, Judge, who's 17. Long trips are out of the question, because Judge starts to worry that his father won't come home. (Ever since he returned from a three-week trip to see Lillie a year ago—their second visit together—Judge has been asking, on a weekly basis, if his father is going to leave him again.) But back in 2001, when Second Life was in its early stages, Paul Hawkins read an article about its creative potential. "It was a way to break the boredom," he says.

Until Hawkins came along in 2005, Lillie had been unlucky with men. Her ex-husband—the father of her daughters, 12, 15 and 18—lives in Utah, and the clan moved to rural Pennsylvania with Lillie's longtime boyfriend a few years after the divorce. But Lillie couldn't find work. She was lonely and bored, and her relationship was failing. So she began logging on to Second Life as a way to keep in touch with a friend back home. "I just needed someone to talk to, and I couldn't afford to make long-distance calls every day," she says.

At first, Second Life wasn't the solution. Hawkins thought it was awkward; Lillie found it hard to maneuver, and was creeped out by strangers who approached her. When she spotted Hawkins, though, she was intrigued. She clicked on his avatar to see his profile, where users post hobbies and photos. But it said only: "I like cheese." "I just thought that was so funny," Lillie says now. "I'd later find out he was this very shy, quiet man who'd expressed himself through his avatar." Psychologists say people use avatars to explore sides of themselves they aren't ready to share with the real world. Often, the lure is wish fulfillment. Hawkins is 5 feet 6 and bald, with a sweet, dimpled smile, but Joe Stravinsky—towering, regal and Goth—is how he sees himself on the inside, he says. "Of course, there are people who go into virtual worlds to deceive, but we felt like we could really be ourselves," says Lillie.

On their first official "date," Hawkins and Lillie spent 12 hours together. Joe took Heart to a hilltop castle. He led her to a massive fireplace, then pushed a secret button that teleported them into a velvet skybox with a huge red couch. "At first I thought, 'Oh, God, he's taking me to his lair'," Lillie jokes. "But he just sat back and I laid across his lap and we just talked."

That night, and many nights after, Lillie fell asleep thinking of Joe Stravinsky. She knows it sounds funny, but it's the only way she knows to describe it: she was hot for an avatar. And scientifically speaking, it's not so farfetched. Brain chemistry doesn't distinguish between the real and the virtual, so it's possible to fall in love with an avatar just as it's possible to fall in love with the idea of a person, says Jeremy Bailenson, a cognitive psychologist who studies virtual interaction at Stanford University. "How we emote, how we get aroused—it's all the same, real or virtual."

The day after their digital wedding, Hawkins and Lillie saw and heard each other for the first time, over the computer screen. Hawkins's voice was soft and gentle; Lillie's warm and girlish. The connection, they say, was immediate—but it was also a wakeup call. They'd moved the relationship from fantasy to reality, and suddenly they had to think about what that meant. Was this practical? Could it really work?How could you truly know a person's ins and outs if you've only seen him or herover the Internet? "There were times when I thought it couldn't last," says Hawkins, talking with NEWSWEEK via a three-way video connection. "Sitting next to a computer all day so you can be with this person, it's crazy," Lillie chimes in. "You neglect your housework, an outside life, and it becomes a very hard relationship."

Hardest of all is the impossibility of physical closeness. The Web is a hothouse for eroticism, but ultimately, touch is elemental. For a while, Lillie and Hawkins messed around with the seriocomic options available in Second Life, where in order to have sex, you actually have to go to a store and buy the parts. It's cheap, and the options are, well, limitless. But what no one has solved is a way for Lillie to feel Hawkins's body next to hers—and those senses shouldn't be understated. "The brain is built for person-to-person communication," says Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University who studies the chemistry of love. "Just kissing somebody can give an enormous amount of information about them: the amount of pressure can show sensitivity, kindness or patience, the way they hold your head can show compassion."

It would be more than two years before Lillie and Hawkins got to have that kiss. But in 2007, Lillie got a call from a British television station that wanted to fly her to meet Hawkins as part of a Web documentary about lives on the Internet. She agreed (happily), and was soon on her way to London, not knowing whether to cry or be sick. She arrived at the airport, and spotted Hawkins immediately, grinning from across the terminal. They embraced, and their fears about that moment, whether it would be different, quickly faded. "As soon as we saw each other, we realized things were exactly the same," says Hawkins. They spent the next three weeks together, grocery shopping, cooking, hanging with family and friends—the ordinary things they couldn't ordinarily do. On their first night together, Hawkins proposed—with a ring engraved with CARIAD, the Welsh word for "sweetheart."

Back in Oxnard, Lillie's family met Hawkins for the first time last year. And though they were skeptical at first—it took Lillie more than a year to tell them about him—her mother and sister now squeeze into the computer room to wave hello to the video screen. Everyone, it seems, wants them to be together. But the odds of living happily ever after, in the storybook sense, are slim. Lillie wants to finish her degree, and can't uproot her girls just yet. Then there's the visa issue: Hawkins must prove he can support his fiancée—difficult on the modest sum he gets from the state to care for his son.

It's hard to sort through these tough issues when you're 6,000 miles apart. But for now, say the couple, Heart and Joe sustain them. They are endlessly optimistic—and others' skepticism makes them only more determined to emerge from all this together, in the physical sense. "Four years ago, Paul and I joined Second Life to fill the loneliness in our hearts, and we found what people search their whole lives for," says Lillie. "Yes, there's an Atlantic Ocean in between us, but we know we're meant to be together. So right now, this is as good as it gets." It's a crazy way to love someone. But turning back now would be even crazier.