Second Life is, as I and many others have remarked, an "immersive" environment. That is, you can let yourself sink into the feeling of "really being there". When you do, it can feel as if things that happen to your avatar really happen to "you". Some big, macho guy invades your personal space, and you instinctively move your avatar a step back. Someone dances with you and you feel yourself swaying in your chair to the music, and can almost feel their arms around you, the warmth of their body close to yours.
This is one of SL's greatest appeals. In this virtual reality, we can, for a while, live in a better place. We can forget the annoyances and trials of our mundane Real Lives and become younger, slimmer, more attractive. We can live in a luxurious mansion by the sea, instead of a dingy, run-down little apartment.
All this is true, and wonderful. But there are darker sides to immersion as well. We can be just as hurt by rejection or betrayal or lies as in Real Life. We may find that we have trusted someone unwisely, and they have talked us into parting with real money. We can fight with someone and come away shaking with reaction.
And sometimes we get so immersed that we completely forget that it's possible to close the program, stand up from the computer, and walk away. Today there was a post in the SL Answers blog on the Second Life website from someone who was ranting about all the people who kept "making her sister pregnant", despite "sterilization". She got several great answers, mostly in the form of "it's only roleplay, sweetie. You don't have to play if you don't want to." Unfortunately, she was so immersed in virtual reality that she kept insisting, "you CAN get pregnant in Second Life."
I remember a time when I was a new-ish avatar, and homeless. I came across a pose stand out in public, and decided to use it to adjust my new hairstyle. While I was locked down on the stand, another avatar, with a leering, demonic appearance, jumped on me. Some scripted gadget he was wearing began saying lascivious things in local chat. I was so startled that I completely forgot about what to do. I literally froze in place, back there in Real Life, staring at this horrid person who was violating me. Yes, I FELT violated. I felt as if he was right there, whispering filthy words in my ear. After a short time, he hopped off and flew away, but I shook for about twenty minutes.
I'm older now and more experienced. I've learned how to "step back" from my immersion when it's necessary. It's not always easy, and it doesn't help too much with the emotional turmoil that can accompany an argument with someone you care about. But sometimes it's necessary to pull back, pull out, take a deep breath and remind yourself that "it's just pixels".
EDIT: I just discovered I had written a very similar post on this topic ("Full Immersion", Aug 9, 2011) I apologize, dear readers...and hope this isn't a trend. I would hate to think I've run out of new things to say, I haven't even been writing this blog for a full year yet!