"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.