Editor’s note: Omar was skeptical that people could construct meaningful friendships and relationships in an online game — until he made an online friendship of his own. -Jason


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“You know Courtney, right?”
“Uh…the guild officer? Yah. She’s pretty cool”
“Well…I’ve got to tell you something”
“What is it?”
“She and I…well…she’s…um…my…uh…girlfriend”
“….”
“You there?”
It’s been 6 months since that conversation. It took me about a week to get over the shock, but my friend Johnny insisted the connection between him and the Blood Elf mage was real.

 

 

Johnny lives with me in Ontario, and Courtney lives in Wellington, New Zealand. The two have never met in real life, yet they treat their relationship with admirable maturity. They speak daily with one another, and they often employ the use of webcams and microphones to communicate. Courtney has even been introduced to Johnny’s parents, who, surprisingly, really like her!

Terms like “love” and “adoration” often spring up when I discuss the topic with Johnny. The prospect of meeting each other in real life isn’t necessarily a pressing matter. Instead, the two enjoy the company of one another — the relationship is based on more than mere physical attraction, and it seems like they really care for one another.

Removing the obvious physical barrier, it seems like the two are part of a healthy, productive relationship. So why was I so shocked? We read more and more about the misadventures of online couples. Is there anything to it? Is the relationship between my friend Johnny and his “girlfriend,” Courtney, valid in any sense? How do people meet, fall in love, and befriend one another in a strictly-controlled, rigidly-designed virtual world?

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An MIT professor in behavioral studies is quoted as saying, “When somebody’s sitting by their laptop at home and writing these sterile e-mails to each other, there’s no sense of emotionality….”

However, Johnny’s experiences refute this claim, and studies support him. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) is a relatively new field of study, but it offers startling revelations concerning the nature of social architectures.

A 2001 research study by Nick Yee, a scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, shows that 60 percent of male and 75 percent of female EverQuest players consider their friendships with in-game peers to be as valid (and sometimes more valid) than their real-life friendships. Furthermore, 3 percent of male and 15 percent of female players admit to having romantic relationships with individuals they first met in-game.

Early CMC research showed that online interaction was often cold and callous. But recent studies prove that trust and intimacy are easily fostered in the absence of conventional physical and verbal cues.

Encounters with Fellow Blood Elves

Have you ever run into someone online and immediately felt a bond? Whether it was in Scoutzknivez or in the depths of Molten Core, most of us have had the pleasure of making friends online. Haverford College professor Michael Oswalt claims that online worlds have several pivotal features that make hyperpersonal encounters very simple to generate.

The results of experimentation and study by social scientists leave little doubt to the commonality of Johnny’s relationship. In fact, the nature of the Internet and online games quite easily explain how the relationship began and subsequently blossomed.

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For starters, an increased level of anonymity encourages self-disclosure and, in turn, more intimate encounters. As demonstrated in most MMO environments; complete strangers often have the propensity to reveal very startling secrets to one another — enhancing any feelings of familiarity.

As players often control fantastical characters (Tauren, Orcs, and Night Elves), physical attraction and appearance are often reduced in importance or removed entirely from the equation. As a result, players must rely on the small pieces of information they receive in order to form their opinions of one another.

Michigan State professor Joseph B. Walther claims that individuals often inflate those opinions with positive intent. Your mind could easily turn a comment like “I’m on the swim team” to mean “I’m a swimsuit model.”

In “real life,” individuals are often judged by their physical attributes, many of which they can’t control. One’s hair color, quality of clothing, height, and build are all things that form the basis of physical attraction. However, in certain online worlds, a player can optimize their physical representation, filtering out qualities that they believe to be unattractive.

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Busted car? That Night Elf Priest eying you never has to see it!

 

Yee explains that when speaking face-to-face with another human being, we carry a cognitive load that is “taken up by smiling, nodding, gesturing, and maintaining posture.”

In an online encounter, however, we’re free to concentrate on the content, diction, and register of our messages — making them seem more precise, meaningful, and articulate.

Lastly, players often get to mediate the pace and length of their discussions. If a conversation with a member of the opposite sex is going downhill in real life, you cannot simply claim that “I’m about to be summoned for an Ulduar run. Laters!” Because that would be weird.

Social Architecture within Persistent Words

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While it isn’t always readily apparent, Azeroth and Norrath are controlled by very rigid social structures that determine who you can interact with, when you can interact with them, and for what reason. The very nature of these worlds requires co-operation, encouraging chance encounters between people like Johnny and his girlfriend, Courtney.

The need to band together is evident in the development of 10-man, 25-man and 40-man dungeon raids. While it’s possible to reach the level capacity in complete solitude, games like Dark Age of Camelot and World of WarCraft encourage players — from the outset — to join forces with one another.

Furthermore, most MMOGs possess a class system, which determines the abilities that each player has. While a warrior can deal considerable damage (provided the correct specialization), he will need a priest to help heal him. Most classes were designed to be symbiotic and complimentary — relying on one another to defeat enemies and to survive.

Players are often forced into conversation by the sheer length of time spent waiting in MMOGs. Another study from the Palo Alto Research Center concludes that in World of WarCraft, approximately 25 percent of a player’s time is spent waiting. A player waits for enemies to respawn, for transportation to arrive, for mana to replenish, and for group members to be summoned. During these intermediate periods between violence and action, players find themselves speaking with one another.

Whether it’s politics, religion, or the weather, conversation encourages a feeling of association. Guilds and contact lists capitalize on the friendships made while questing and instancing.

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Reinforcing Relationships

In a phenomenon rarely seen in the “real world,” gamers often display very selfless behavior toward complete strangers. After having known a fellow player for less than 10 minutes, the offer of an “instance run” isn’t uncommon. Free gold and items are, rather strangely, shared between passersby. I’ve often seen priests and paladins revive random corpses along the side of the road, with little consideration of their own time.

Persistent online worlds are ruled by social schemes that promote mutual assistance and welfare. Kind acts can quickly create a strong sense of endearment between two people.

However effective kind and considerate behavior can be, recent studies by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology show that crises within in-game worlds are the best catalysts to initiate strong relationships.

I remember an encounter with Thaddius, a boss in Naxxramas, that instigated a very fruitful friendship with a player named “Marlowe.” We were 25-men strong, preparing for one of the most complicated boss fights in the dungeon.

To defeat Thadius, two tanks were necessary, and so Marlowe and I took the helm of the raid group. Before engaging Thaddius, we were required to defeat his two minibosses, Stalagg and Feugen, who were on opposite ends of the room.

After a short countdown, we began our attempt at victory. Slowly but surely, we depleted Thaddius’ minions. Soon, the wasted corpses of Stalagg and Feugen fell to the ground with resounding staccato. At this point, Thaddius became enraged, hurling taunts at the group from across a large pit of boiling sewage. A common mechanic in the game, the surviving group members made the leap across the chasm. Unfortunately, Cheeto-greased spacebars and faulty reflexes resulted in more than half of the group falling to their dooms — simmering in the blistering green ooze. Marlowe was one of the dead.

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I had only been level 80 for a week, and my gear wasn’t up to par. To make matters worse, the remaining nine group members were mostly healers. We were doomed. But over the Ventrillo channel, I heard Marlowe’s cries of encouragement: “You can do it, pal!”

And so we did.

It took almost 20 minutes of resolute hacking and slashing, but we took Thaddius down, revived the rest of the raid group, and rode off into the sunset.

The crisis that was presented to the group cemented our social cohesion. It was — for the most part — a pick-up group, yet I still have many members of that instance run on my MSN contact list. I expect that Marlowe and I will be friends for many more years to come.

After serious consideration and a little research, it’s clear to me that we shouldn’t scoff at most online relationships. Whether it’s anecdotal or empirical, I have plenty of evidence to support the validity of online friendships and relationships!