Teen marriages on the rise - in cyberspace

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They are married, widowed, divorced - all before they are even old enough to get a provisional driver's licence.

Teen gamers at MapleStory, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), get hitched at the rate of a couple a day in a range of weddings that cost between $30 and $40.

As part of the game, they can buy wedding tickets - cosy, sweety and premium packages - which enable them to receive anywhere between 10 and 60 guests, and obtain virtual wedding rings that add to their avatars' prowess.

Amanda Lee, a 14-year-old Raffles Girls' School student in real life, has had no fewer than five 'serious boyfriends' in the game.

She has been 'married' three times.

'It was definitely not for love,' she said. 'More for the ring and the protection my spouse can offer me in-game.

Other teens take their couplehood more seriously - offline.

Away from the game, they become real-life couples after getting married online.

Others who are already in an offline relationship make things official with an in-game wedding.

Like real marriages, not all work out.

When they fail, players need only wait four days and cough up 500,000 mesos - MapleStory's game currency - to get a Maple divorce.

Breaking up is easy to do because it allows game developers to sell wedding tickets to the same players repeatedly, said Mr Ray Chua, a senior executive at Touch Cyber Wellness and Sports, a charitable organisation that provides community service.

He added: 'I would hesitate to read too much into the differences in pricing between marriages and divorces in MapleStory.'

Even so, the trend can be worrying for those who take their Maple mates too seriously.

Jiray Teo, 17, was in Secondary 4 when he met a fellow Singaporean student and was attracted to her sweet online disposition.

The pair dated offline too.

But when she plotted to test his feelings by pretending she had been in an accident in real life, he wanted out.

He now says: 'I was too quick to enter the relationship because I really did not expect someone to be so different from her online persona.'

For first-year ITE Clementi student Soon Zhao Hui, love hurt - his pocket.

His 'spouse' emptied his game credits when he took a break from the game to study. Bemoaning giving her his account details, he said: 'I really regretted trusting her.'

Mr Chua warned that 'cyber marriages and relationships can greatly increase the game immersion factor'.

And when emotions from virtual relationships become as powerful as real-life ones, this can 'increase the risk of the gamer becoming addicted'.

Already, some gamers realise they spend too much time with their Maple mates.

A Secondary 4 student, who wanted to be identified only as Albert, confessed: 'There is both a longing and a commitment to 'see' her every day. Although I have O levels this year, I can't resist logging on when I see the computer.'

Many with failed Maple marriages feel scarred.

'Breaking up with my Maple boyfriend affected me so much that I didn't know what to do with my life,' said Amanda Lui, 17, as she recalled the end of a four-month relationship.

'I still haven't really gotten over it.'

By Lim Jun Yi

Sources here from http://digital.asiaone.com


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