Game On! The Newest Way to Socialize
Online games aren't just a diversion, but a unique way to meet other people. As millions of gamers demonstrate, playing online is about friendship and cooperation, not just killing monsters. These games are a viable social network because players focus on teamwork, form groups with like-minded people and have romantic relationships with other players.
Massively-Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) feature millions of players interacting in the same environment. The games are social in nature as they allow players to band together and complete missions based on a story line, or test their skills by fighting against each other. At the start of the game, the user creates a fictional character, and customizes its physical appearance. Since many games involve combat, players also outfit their characters with armor and weapons, as well as choose their "profession." Many popular game titles like World of Warcraft and Everquest follow a fantasy theme, so most professions have magical abilities like healing other players or raising undead minions. While the process seems simple, players may spend hours agonizing over the perfect look for their character, from their armor color to the type of skills to use in battle. Once their character is created, the player is free to explore the vast, digital world and interact with other players; however they must pay on average $15 a month for game content. MMOG users are mostly male - usually between the ages of 18-34 - although titles like World of Warcraft have a healthy population of female players as well. With millions of players, there are plenty of people to adventure with.
Internet gamers insist on teamwork and cooperation, which contributes to the social atmosphere of the game. Due to the complexity of a game like Everquest, it is almost impossible to beat it alone. Players rely on other humans to help them. Group coordination is important then, as a person that attacks a difficult monster against team orders could cost the group hours of work. Before starting a mission, players discuss various strategies and techniques instead of charging in without any knowledge. Each person on the team has a certain role to play - certain characters will heal the party while others will be primary damage dealers. Teamwork and cooperation are especially important in games like World of Warcraft, where 40-person "raids" are needed to assure victory in certain missions. The social aspect of the game then, comes from coordinating with other people, not destroying monsters. This is an unstated fact in many game manuals, which only instruct players about the game's story and mechanics. Professor T.L. Taylor of IT University of Copenhagen discusses this phenomenon in a lecture at the University of Washington. She explains how in Everquest, players could get large "trains" of monsters to follow them, and then alert the team when the monsters were approaching - a tactic not mentioned in the manual. "Players don't just pick up a game and understand it," Taylor says. They are "socialized in practices of play" so as to develop a "sophisticated understanding" of how the game works. By learning to work with others, people can "evaluate other players" and enjoy the game more.
Players that enjoy the experience of working with others will often join game-based organizations known as "guilds" or "clans." These groups are like a virtual family, as they complete missions together and provide the player with contacts inside the game. For groups with a small membership, the players are often close-knit as they come to rely on fellow members. There are many benefits to group members besides socializing though. In the game Guild Wars, the most powerful "guilds" can control virtual towns, and access special areas off-limits to most players. Certain groups even compete in online championships for world recognition. But for most people, being in a game group is just hanging out with friends. Mike Windham, an online gamer and guild-leader, says that people join such groups because they are "somehow related to something [they] do or like." He references how many online games encourage people to join organizations of like-minded players - certain groups specialize in completing the story while others prefer to battle other humans. As a guild leader, Windham has his own share of responsibilities, as he "acts like a public relations manager" that "makes sure everything runs well." But he does acknowledge that the game helps him maintain his friendships within the group. "Sometimes going online is the only way I can reach some people," he says. Not only do people find that such groups help them complete the game easier, they bring them closer to other players as well.
The social environment of these games can lead to romantic relationships between players. This is because the game combines the anonymity of the Internet with the social aspect of working together. These relationships are unique because they start with little expectations - in most cases two people think they will never meet each other and so are more willing to be honest. Couples that play together get to know each other emotionally, without having to worry about physical appearances getting in the way. Many times future couples meet in "guilds", as the groups are formed around a common interest like adventuring together. Overtime, a relationship is formed as the players become attached to one another. In many cases, the relationship dies out after a few months, but some people take the effort to meet their partner in person. For couples who meet face to face and have physical relationships, the game was the driving factor that brought them together. On his website, "The Daedalus Project," Nick Yee, a Stanford Ph.D student who does research in online games, quotes a female World of Warcraft player who doubted she would have had a relationship with her partner had they met in real life. The 25 year old woman said she would "have pigeonholed him without ever giving him a chance" because he "definitely wasn't my type" (11). Yee goes on to say that the "absence of physical cues can in fact make relationships less focused on superficial qualities between people who are in fact highly compatible" (11). While some may argue that these online relationships are shallow, they can lead to a lasting, physical relationship that would not have been possible without the game.
Some argue that people are playing online games not for the social aspect but because they are addicted to the game instead. They claim that spending so much time online will cause people to have a shut-in life, more attached to virtual characters than real people. This seemed to be the case of Shawn Wooley, a 21 year old Everquest fan who committed suicide in November 2001. In the CBS News report, "Addicted: Suicide Over Everquest?" by Susan Spencer, Wooley's mother recalls that her son, "couldn't stay off [Everquest]" and claims that "he shot himself because of the game" (1). But while Wooley's case is unfortunate, the report also notes that he "struggled with learning disabilities and significant emotional problems" (1), which probably played a larger role in his death. According to Yee, the Stanford Ph.D student, most players only spend about 21 hours a week in the game, and that people logged on to "socialize and find group affiliation" (1), not escape from reality. After Wooley's death, Everquest installed a timer to let players set their limits. While games are a viable social network, they should be used - like most things - in moderation.
What these games reveal is that socializing over the Internet is a viable way of communicating. While critics of social networking sites like Myspace get hung up over privacy issues, they ignore the fact that these websites are useful tools for people to find old friends or meet new ones. While it's true that Myspace had to deal with privacy concerns this has not stopped it from offering an environment conducive for socializing. Sites like Myspace allow people to achieve a difficult task: maintaining friendships - especially long distance ones - without losing track of people. People can also join groups with similar interests and make new connections over the web - even romantic ones. While Myspace is not as complicated as online games it draws on the same population of Internet-savvy people who want to expand their horizons and socialize in a new, interesting, way.
In a world where people turn to technology more than ever, some feel that humanity is becoming isolated. But as online gamers show, venturing into the digital world is a gateway to society, not a cut off point. Socializing with other people isn't a thing of the past - it's the basis for the future, and online gamers are leading the way.
Taylor, T.L. "Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture." University of Washington. Seattle. 12 May 2006.
Windham, Mike. Personal interview. 24 October 2006.
Yee, Nick. The Daedalus Project. Home Page. 1 September 2006. 24 October 2006.
Spencer, Susan. "Addicted: Suicide Over Everquest?." CBS News.com 18 October 2002.
24 October 2006. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/10/17/48hours/main525965.shtml
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