There is no Second Life because these children are dead.

elizabeth pester
Elizabeth Pester and Mark Knapp neglected their two-year-old daughter in favour of the online game Second Life

Twins are found in SunnyBank Hills in Brisbane. A boy and a girl, seventeen months old,. They weigh just 4.72kg and 4.97kg, respectively.

Starved to death.

A two-year-old girl is taken to hospital. She can’t walk, talk and can barely crawl. She weighs just 5.8 kilos and authorities suspect that she has never been taken out of her apartment in the U.S. state of Oklahoma.

Rushed to hospital.

Starved, neglected.

A three-month-old girl is left alone in her home for up to twelve hours a day, fed just once a day. She dies in South Korea of severe dehydration.

What do these three cases from such far-flung corners of the globe have in common?

Their parents were all addicted to playing the online game, Second Life.

Computer game second life
A scene from the Second Life game

Second Life is an Internet fantasy world, where you can reinvent yourself, and indulge in the kind of life you’ve only dreamed of.

It started in 2002 and has gained such a following that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama opened campaign offices in this parallel universe. There are over 36 million registered users of the game.

Second Life users describe it as liberating, allowing them to shrug off the responsibilities of every day life and escape. They inhabit a world without boundaries, where they can do what they want, travel where they want, be who they want and have sex with whomever they want.

At one point every major media organisation and company had an office in Second Life.

It is a place so far from reality that the creators of the game say that six of every ten female avatars in the game are actually played by men.

Just last week Mamamia reported on a Brisbane mother so obsessed with Second Life that her twins starved to death in a bedroom down the hall from where she played the game.

The babies were left alone in a filthy cot while she lived out her dream life, far removed from the slowly disintegrating one she had.

While her children starved their mother created a new identity, a new home, and even a new partner. In real life she was overweight and a mother of six kids. In her “new life” her avatar was beautiful, slim and most pointedly, child free.

She sat for hours, entrenched in a virtual life, ignoring the children, the home, and the deaths occurring around her. The mother in this case has been prosecuted and, in fact, has already served five years of her eight-year sentence in custody.

While we heard about this with horror last week, little were we to know that it was happening again, across the other side of the world. In Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It was on Tuesday when a two-year-old girl was rushed to hospital. Authorities were horrified by her condition. Detectives told the local television network that the girl was severely malnourished, and could not walk, talk or even crawl.

Second Life computer game
A scene from the game Second Life

“My gut feeling is the child probably never left the apartment” said detective Denielle Bishop “The back of her head is completely flat.” The two-year-old weighed just 5.8 kilograms. (The average two-year-old should weigh between ten and fifteen kilograms.)

What’s shocking about this case is the girls parents told surprised hospital staff they were leaving, but would be back in a few days to check on the girl, despite living just around the corner.

Local police were alerted, and arrived at the house to find the parents, Mark Knapp and Elizabeth Pester immersed in a game of Second Life. The mother reportedly asked police if her daughter was dead.

Elizabeth Pester had previously been known to authorities for her daughter’s malnutrition and had been allocated weekly weigh-ins with a therapist, however her Second Life obsession took priority.

In “real life” Mark Knapp and Elizabeth Pester had no job and no car. In Second Life Pester led a glamorous existence as late night DJ.

Court papers show that she never made many of these  weigh-in appointments, she told the therapist that she had a late night “job” as a DJ and had to sleep in.

Mark Knapp, 48, and wife, Elizabeth Pester, 33, were charged with child neglect and abuse.

The couple are being held in jail on a US$50,000 bond each. The little girl is still in hospital in a critical condition.

It’s a story we have heard before. Back in 2010, headlines were made when a three-month-old baby was starved to death by her parents. Forgotten, as they devoted hours to their Second Life game in which they were busy raising a virtual baby.

The South Korean 41-year-old man and 25-year-old woman, who met through a chat website, reportedly left their baby unattended for up to twelve hours at a time. They went to Internet cafes, and dropped by occasionally to feed their daughter a bottle.

Elizabeth Pester second life
Elizabeth Pester’s Facebook page show cases her avatar from Second Life.

One night after a 12-hour gaming-session the couple came home to find their daughter dead.

And it’s not just Second Life. In 2011, Rebecca Colleen Christie was sentenced to 25 years in prison by a New Mexico court for allowing her 3 ½ year-old daughter to die of malnutrition while she spent hours playing World of Warcraft. It’s a concerning pattern.

Some experts are warning that too many people are substituting their real life for a virtual one. So much so they have coined the term “virtual world addiction.”

Sufferers withdraw completely into this make believe world, withdrawing from family and friends. The criticism of these virtual worlds is that the games are specifically designed to keep people playing longer.

In the newly released Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) Internet gaming disorder has been listed for a future study. Research shows that 0.5% of all gamers show symptoms of this disorder.

For the majority of users it’s a bit of harmless fun, but the tragedy here is these four forgotten children. It seems the collateral damage of gaming is all too often the families of those whose harmless fun turns into an addiction. For the game designers the incentive is financial. Keep the player hooked and the virtual dollars turn into real ones.

But while the dollars roll in with every new player, a two-year-old girl lies in hospital fighting for her life.

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