Friendships within a “Fantasy” Life

“…online experiences can be as richly emotional and deeply intimate as those that directly emerge in face-to-face interaction.” (Chayko, Mary; Superconnected, 2017)

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Members of a guild pose for a group photo in the popular MMORPG, World of Warcraft.

Ever since I read this quote, and even more so ever since it was brought up again in my digital literacy class, I’ve been stuck reminiscing about the good old days when MMORPGS, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games, were popular and people were willing to just hang out in a virtual world rather than rush to the next quest and be done with it.

MMORPGs, or also known simply as MMOs, are in a pretty sad state right now. Most are just cash grabs featuring loot boxes that happen to feature unstimulating story progression with lackluster game design and repetitive updates. It’s extremely frustrating that everything being released feels the same. Grinding day in and day out as if it were a second job. I’m no expert game designer, but I am a gamer who hopes a new MMO will come out that will capture my heart the same way games of the past have without feeling like I’m just adding more work to my plate. But now I digress…

BACK TO THE POINT!

What makes an MMO different from other online games is the people who play it. Thanks to a lack of decent MMOs out there, it’s hard to stay on one game anymore. You try it, realize it’s bad, and move on. When an MMO actually manages to gain enough of a following, communities form. Those communities often form guilds within the game. They’re often filled with like-minded people who may just want to hang out in some virtual tavern somewhere and gossip or run around dungeons together defeating monsters and leveling up. Friendships form and relationships with people miles and miles away become another piece of yourself – both in-game and in real life.

Over a decade ago now, I tried out a new game that had popped up on an ad online that happened to catch my eye. (I won’t include the name of the MMO just because I don’t want to offend any people who may still play it.) I thought the art was cute, and the advertised phrase “live your dream life” sounded enticing, especially as an awkward adolescent still figuring out what kind of person I wanted to be. Honestly, I believe that the social aspects of the people within the game and how I reacted to them formed part of who I am today.

After loading up the game, I created my character and proceeded to immerse myself in the digitized realm. I ended up starting out the game with a few other newcomers that happened to be running errands around the village square of the beginning town. Once we were familiarized to the game, we joined up in a guild and formed more friendships with people more experienced in the game.

We chatted constantly. Almost every evening we would all get together and run raids within dungeons. We defeated skeletons and ogres and made sure to participate in the seasonal events, sharing loot so that we would be sure everyone received the limited edition items. When we weren’t leveling up our skills and completing quests, we would all sit together in a designated safe area and just chat. Some people chose not to share their actual lives, but others poured themselves out there – probably because they knew they’d never likely meet. It was fun listening to rants, giving advice, and learning bits and pieces about the intricacies of the person behind the smiling pixelized character seated in front of my own. Even without knowing the finer details that could identify themselves in reality, we talked (well, mostly just typed) and formed opinions of each other the same way people do out in normal communities. That’s how humans form bonds – through communicating within a community. It didn’t matter whether they were online characters in a game controlled by people across the country. We considered each other friends, and we hung out (albeit online within a game) more than most friends get to do in the real world.

Unfortunately, those same people I befriended continued to play for several years until, suddenly, people we knew began disappearing one by one. Real life ultimately got in the way. Combine that with a game whose updates seemed to always only include simple quests and loot boxes containing rare items purchasable through real currency and you get a dead game and lost friendships. Most of the people I played with were around the same age as me and up to 10 years older. Many started going off to college or starting families which meant they didn’t have time to get onto the game anymore. Others were sick of the developers of the game implementing ways to make the game too easy. It wasn’t fulfilling to them anymore. I finally quit when I realized I was spending too much time and money on a free game without actually playing with anyone because they all left. Solo-queuing into dungeons was boring. Buying loot boxes for intangible objects I couldn’t even flaunt to people I knew became a waste. I figured I should focus on my real life goals and relationships, too. It was time to end my dream life.

Only one person I know who I considered a close friend in-game still plays, and we’ll catch up online once in a while since we’re also friends on Facebook. I’ve never met her in real life, but I know what she looks like and know that she even attended the wedding of a mutual online friend just last year. But with most, I lost contact with them forever. They deleted their messaging accounts associated with their character. Despite ghosting me, I still think of everyone time-to-time. Even I’m guilty of ghosting people since I don’t particularly want to try and go back to that time of my life. I wouldn’t consider it a phase, but I’m not the same person I was when I played. I didn’t want people to expect one person and get someone else, so I figured it was best to leave their memory of me intact by leaving them alone.

Intimacy within online environments can be very real, but they can also be fleeting. I personally spent way too much time online making friends instead of out in the world meeting people I could meet face-to-face. However I think I made good use of that time by realizing that people responded to the upbeat, determined person I was inside the game. Using this knowledge, I was able to translate it to the person I am in reality and become someone that is considered to be friendly and reliable. (At least, that’s the vibe people seem to give off when they’re around me… I hope that doesn’t sound too presumptuous, ha-ha!) I’m thankful for that MMORPG and the people I shared it with. Though that time of my life is long gone, I’m ready to start a new game with a new community with the new me. The problem is now finding a new game that’s worth my time, but that’s a rant for another day.

-Charlee

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2 thoughts on “Friendships within a “Fantasy” Life”

  1. Thanks for this Charlee. What you say here about trying on/ trying out aspects of ourselves in settings in which we’re anonymous illustrates so nicely that there just aren’t clear lines between virtual and real. Unlike people in many parts of the world, people in the US are spread across such a huge geography, often far from family and childhood friends. Digital connections bridge those distances, and this is relatively new and is, thus far, relatively understudied except for some interesting studies of immigrants and refugees.

    Have you see the networks among kids around Scratch? https://scratch.mit.edu/ Or the connected camps around Minecraft? https://connectedcamps.com/about I think of kids growing up within these networks in which they are supported and mentored while also supporting one another. Having grown up isolated in a small rural town, I am fascinated by those sorts of opportunities.

    Liked by 1 person

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