For its many devotees, the Second Life virtual world is a place where the everyday constraints of normal life drop away and vivid fantasies can be played out.
But fact and fiction have collided for a British couple who are divorcing after the wife discovered her husband's online alter-ego - a goatee-bearded, medallion-wearing hombre called Dave Barmy - with another woman, also virtual.
Amy Taylor, who in Second Life is a club DJ called Laura Skye, said yesterday that as far as she was concerned her husband, David Pollard, was having a real relationship with the human controlling her rival. "It may have started online but it existed entirely in the real world and it hurts just as much," she said. "His was the ultimate betrayal. He had been lying to me."
Second Life is the brainchild of an American company, Linden Lab. Players create a virtual alter ego, or avatar, which can move around the imagined world, meet people, socialise, and buy land and property and set up businesses with the game's virtual currency.
Role-playing games have won plaudits for connecting people, academics and businesses, but the British charity Relate last night said that its counsellors were coming across an increasing number of people whose real-life relationships were falling apart because of what was happening in their parallel, unreal, worlds.
Second Life players have spotted the trend and some have set themselves up as virtual private eyes who check on the fidelity of suspected cyber cheats, or act as virtual relationship counsellors.
Amy Taylor (she has already changed her name by deed poll), 28, and David Pollard, 40, met in an internet chatroom. She moved from her home in London to be with him in Newquay, Cornwall, and at first they had fun together, in real life and cyberspace.
In Second Life Taylor liked to wear tight-fitting cowboy outfits and she lived by the motto: "Never give your heart easily." Pollard set himself up in a winter chalet with a Cobra helicopter gunship parked next to it. Their avatars became partners in Second Life, until Taylor woke from an afternoon nap and found Pollard at the computer watching his Dave Barmy character having sex with a prostitute.
Horrified, Taylor ended the online relationship between Skye and Barmy but stayed with Pollard in real life.
It was then that fact and fiction really began to collide. Taylor decided to test Dave Barmy, and thus Pollard's loyalty, by turning to a virtual female private eye called Markie Macdonald.
A "honeytrap" was set up in which an alluring avatar chatted Barmy up. He passed the test with flying colours, talking about Laura Skye all night.
Barmy and Skye got back together in cyberspace, marrying in a ceremony held in a pretty, tropical grove.
In real life at their flat in Cornwall, Taylor wept as she watched the service and in 2005, in real life again, the couple married in the less glamorous surroundings of St Austell register office.
But Taylor sensed something was wrong and eventually she found Barmy chatting affectionately in Second Life to a woman who was not Skye.
She found it even more disturbing than his earlier tryst as there seemed genuine affection in it. In real life, she filed for divorce.
Taylor said she realised the saga sounded "bizarre" but added: "People find love in lots of different ways."
She said she still played Second Life, and there was a chance her alter ego would bump into her former partner's. It would be awkward, but they would survive.
Pollard admitted he was having an online relationship with an American woman. "We weren't even having cyber sex or anything like that, we were just chatting and hanging out together. It was nothing really major. I don't think I was really doing anything wrong."
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