Murlocs and Dating

Turned this up working on my portfolio. Originally written for, December 2006

I often wonder if MMORPGs are adding new friends and new activities to our social lives or replacing meaningful interaction with three-letter abbreviations. Are our on-line hours helping or harming our offline friendships?

Where Everybody Knows Your [Screen] Name*, discusses the social aspects of MMORPGs in terms of three social zones. Home is the first place, and then your second place is work or school. Second places provide some community but differ from third places because the priority isn’t on social interaction. Third places are the coffeeshop from Friends, the bar on Cheers or, possibly, Ironforge and Starcrest.

We’ve all heard the accusation that gamers are anti-social. Sometimes we respond angrily, other times we embrace the solitary geek descriptions. But social gaming provides an essential third place, where online friendships and teams might actually be helpful and healthy.

Initially connecting with others is easier online. MUDs often offer an easy way to tell other players that you’re looking for a group or that you’re flying solo for a while. How great would this be in real life? “Look buddy, if I wanted you to buy me a drink, I’d have put my Available flag up!” And with the ease of entering and dissolving alliances, socialization is easy and low-pressure.

Like a local pub or coffeeshop, regulars on a server can either welcome and encourage newcomers or make n00bs uncomfortable. Third places, according to Steinkuehler and Williams, “include a cadre of regulars who attract newcomers and give the space its characteristic mood”. This is true of online gaming realms, although unfortunately the regulars often set the mood of Chuck Norris jokes and requests for high-level walkthroughs. Beloved third places often evoke feelings of possession, and regulars on a server may feel that new players are invading their home. Preying on newcomers, either in a PvP setting or socially, can be frustrating for a new player, but these feelings of possession show just how much the preexisting players value their virtual haunt.

Game developers and manufacturers are often talking about ways to attract women to game. But girl-focused games are often too much of a third space. The entire focus is on social activities, and some (dare I say most?) of these games fail because there’s nothing else to do. It’s like chatting over a game of Monopoly, only without the Monopoly part. Sure, I want the pretty armor, and I love in-game shopping, but I need more than that to justify my monthly fee.

Although I’m much more interested in a game than a chatroom, I don’t want to understate the importance of socialization online. I’ve met up with many real-life friends in MMO worlds, and it’s often surprising who can offer help and who needs assistance ingame. GPA, salary, age and offline skills are totally unrelated to one’s success ingame. The quests require teamwork, and having a good team, guild or online buddy makes my online game time so much better.

All those hours online have affected my offline relationship. I don’t think my boyfriend and I would be as good at solving real-world problems together if we hadn’t practiced collaborating to solve so many in-game puzzles.

While questing separately or running virtual errands in different realms, my boyfriend and I use the chat channel to update each other on our progress. This style of communication set a precedent for our real life communication when we were separated for the last year. A running commentary on what’s happening is a reminder that out-of-sight is not out-of-mind, and a little while between update doesn’t mean a lack of affection, but an abundance of hungry murlocs. (Or a heavy workload.) All those hours on World of WarCraft and Everquest are really relationship skills.

* Where Everybody Knows Your [Screen] Name is by Constance Steinkuehler of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Dmitri Williams, of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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