Thursday, June 16, 2011

Friendship in the Age of the MMO

"We're a guild formed from RL friends..."

"We used to play with RL friends, but decided to strike out on our own..."

"If we join, we have some RL friends who might like to join too..."

If you've been around WoW long enough, you've seen entries like that describing guilds and players alike.  This isn't unique to WoW, of course; my experience with the Internet dates back to the 80's, and people would differentiate between real life (RL) friends and online/virtual friends as a matter of course.  Online friends were the equivalent of an electronic pen pal, only with a bit more instant gratification.  While nice, they were considered secondary to the people you met face-to-face. 

The convention has continued to this day, but I wonder if by now the convention has it wrong.

How often do you get online to play WoW?  Text/Tweet people?  Visit chatrooms/webcams?  Update Facebook?  And then, the obvious question:  how often do you spend time talking/hanging out with your RL friends?

You may not have all the visual cues that you get from a true face-to-face conversation, but for a lot of people their online friends are the real life friends.  The transient nature of a lot of jobs --especially in IT-- means that your coworkers may be in the cubicle next to you, or half a world away.  If you can work on a team with someone overseas, why is it so unusual to have a raiding buddy a continent away as a friend?

It isn't unusual at all.  Not anymore.

The world has shrunk, and tech --MMOs included-- has changed the dynamics of friendship.  As a shared activity, an MMO such as WoW fosters friendships where the common denominator is the game itself.

Of course, most in-game interactions are of the "polite stranger" or "general acquaintance" variety,* but it doesn't have to be.  Perhaps you hang with your guildies due to a shared goal, but after raiding with people three nights a week for months on end, are you so sure you've remained merely acquaintances?

I know people in my neighborhood who would think I was a special type of crazy for suggesting that online friendships should be given equal footing with RL ones.  "What sort of crackpot are you, anyway?" they'd ask, then go back to sitting in their garage, drinking their beer and discussing high school sports.**  But replace the garage with a computer, and sports with Tol Barad, and what do you have?

It's important to have perspective in all of this, but the one thing that I've been struck by time and again is that WoW friendships shouldn't take a back seat to anyone.***  Don't try to put the WoW friends into a little compartment and pretend that they're inferior to your "real" friends, because they aren't.

*Or the nerd rager type.  Or the OMG FAIL! type.  But I digress.

**Yes, that sort of thing really does happen in my neighborhood.  All the time.

***Well, except for your family.


  1. I've actually stopped distinguishing between my friends like that, I might only add "I know him in RL as well" or "she lives in another country" as a sort of explanation of how we are friends and how we interact. Since I moved to England from Austria, I've also had a lot of friends "swap places". I'm only exchanging e-mails with former schoolmates, yet I see the guy who used to be my WoW raid leader every other week for tabletop roleplaying. :)

  2. I've had friends who I have met through the game that I felt I could tell some things to or who would understand things more than some of my RL friends would.

    We met in person and it was like I had known them for *years.* Even if we never met, we have followed each other through the game and other servers and Facebook. Those are real, solid friendships.

    I complete agree with this post!

  3. While I personally agree with the sentiment (having met many of my gaming friends in person) I know plenty of people who dump everyone they meet online in the acquaintance box -- they never talk about anything but the activity they're involved in, and those lovely friendships that I've enjoyed never blossom.

  4. I call them online or offline friends, it sort of makes them equal for me. I think this issue is, with so many other MMO issues, stuck in the fake/virtual vs real/physical dichotomy which poses the virtual to be lesser, as is often not the case, it's just different, same goes with the friendship matter.

    However, we can't discredit the people who don't consider others online to be eligible for friendships either, when they don't feel they know someone until they've physically met them.

    Nonetheless, talking about modern day phenomenon, online friendships and internet aquantances is one that I think is, if not changing then challenging how we think about friends and friendships as a concept in itself, which is a pretty big deal I think.

  5. @Shintar-- Yeah, it's strange how fluid things are these days. I'm pretty sure I asked before, but what do you play?

    @Oestrus-- I've had the same experience. Not all of them still play, but I do keep up with them other ways. When you've got a good circle of friends in WoW, it's like an extended family. Better, even, because you didn't get to pick your family.

    @Windsoar-- I know that viewpoint as well. To some people in-game, I'm sure I come off as standoffish: I'll say hi, make some pleasantries, and congratulate people a lot, but I rarely get on Vent or Mumble (or hold an extended conversation). However, that's more me just not wanting to butt in when there's already a conversation going on. I also tend to play in spurts, where I may be AFK for 1/2 hour at a time to take care of something around the house.

    Now, I do know a lot of people who keep their interactions with others IRL to a bare minimum already. It's kind of like that neighbor of yours who is always polite and says 'hi', but never stops for more than a few minutes to make some small talk. So I think it's more a matter of how different people interact.

    @ironyca-- What I find interesting is that until the advent of the telephone, the fastest communication medium was the written letter. People would carry on correspondence from great distances by stationery, pen, and a stamp from the local Post. Given that people could keep friendships, allow love to blossom, and stay in touch this way, it seems disingenuous for people to say that online friends don't count.

  6. I have been fascinated by this since I started playing WoW. As I started forming friendships with people online I've always wondered if they could be the same as real world friendships. I'm afraid I have to disagree with you that they can be. As someone who's studied psychology I know that there have been dozens of studies that show that physical proximity strengthens friendships, and even creates friendships where none would exist. While this doesn't mean that you HAVE to be physically close to someone to be friends I think you are missing out on something if you're not. There is a reason people instinctively hug each other or cry on others shoulders in sad times. There is a reason that babies cry out to be held. It's part of our nature. I'm sure we can get along alright with only online friends, but I fear that we loose part of our complexity and emotional depth if we are always able to just log-off of our friendships.

  7. I understand what your post was trying to say, but for entirely different reasons. I've been burned quite a few times with online relationships, and online friendships in which in the end I clearly cared more about the people I met in game, than the people in game did about me. There are some people who have no issues discontinuing an online friendship with someone when it's no longer convenient for them. The same can be said for people you meet in real life, however it's easier to sever the cord in an online interface. I've also experienced a situation where online wow friends can't or don't make the transition from online wow friends to real life friends, as the friendship withers when the shared interest of wow is no longer there. I think you just have to take each relationship with someone you meet on it's own. It's hard to make sweeping statements for or against.

  8. @Anonymous-- Very good points, but I do think that in terms of pure interaction, online friends have an advantage over physical friends. You can keep in touch with people online in scenarios where it would be impossible to interact with them physically, such as during a military deployment. Not an equal substitute for physical contact, perhaps, but online is a lot more immediate than the older method of letter writing ever was.

    What I find interesting is that the research flies in the face of traditional masculine behavior. And believe me, I see enough of that offline.

    @Christina-- I appreciate your experience, and I agree that it's more appropriate to look at each relationship as it's own entity. Some people can be real bastards IRL as they are online, and some can be worse either way. I also know that internet stalkers are just as persistent as physical ones are, judging by how some friends of mine have been stalked in the past.

  9. I think the line between Mmo friends and real life friends is what you make it. If I had never given Mmo people a shot, I wouldn't have met my now husband. :)

  10. @Anonymous-- You aren't the only person I know who has met a spouse via WoW. Sure beats a bar by a long shot!