This morning, I am just reflecting on all of the “new connections” made possible by the World Wide Web (and yes, I do feel like an 80-year-old saying that…). I recently watched a documentary called Second Skin which chronicles the life of several individuals who are MMO users (Massively Multiplayer Online games). Most commonly featured in the film are the online games World of Warcraft (WWC) and EverQuest. In this documentary, you see how these MMOs have affected a wide variety of individuals. Some meet their significant other through the online world and fall in love without ever having met (they eventually meet face-to-face, however). Others are dealing with such a strong addiction that they are playing 17 hours a day or more, have lost their jobs, are being evicted, and essentially seeing their lives fall apart due to their addiction to online gaming. So as I watched this film, I was constantly asking myself – can any good come of this?
I will just briefly say that my own bias creeps in when I talk about online gaming. My own experiences with it have only been second-hand, in which friends could not hang out with me or make time for the people already existing in their life due to their need to get into the online gaming world. Perhaps the most common example of this would be WWC’s raids. In these raids, from what I now understand, players engage in a sort of battle with other online players in their guild (much like a clan, I suppose). When you combine the pleasure of the game with the social pressure experienced by being part of a collective team of individuals, the need to play the game just increases. I remember one distinct instance in which a friend and I were out having a wonderful picnic I had made on a beautiful day in the park. It was one of those perfectly sunny yet cool and breezy days that rarely occur. Although we were enjoying ourselves, he had to cut it short because he had to go “raid.” At first, he wouldn’t even tell me the real reason he was leaving, but I did get it out of him. I do admit that this example is very mild of an occurrence, but at that point, I was dumbfounded as to why you would leave the beautiful “real world” to go sit in a dark room and enter the “virtual world.”
But I must admit this documentary opened my eyes a little bit. Although some people do get heavily addicted to online games, people get addicted to things every day: drugs, shopping, alcohol. If a human finds themselves in need of satisfying an emptiness or lonelinesss, they often will find comfort in a variety of things. So the first thing this documentary showed me is that gaming addiction is the same as any other addiction – it’s an issue of hurt, loneliness, and emptiness in the person CAUSING the addition, but it is not necessarily the game causing it. For so long, seeing friends of mine’s lives be negatively affected by these games made me feel like it was something about the game.
The other thing I was able to see was how positive of an experience these MMOs are to many users. It opens up a world of people you wouldn’t otherwise know who often share similar interests with. Many of the individuals seemed to benefit very positively from the opportunity afforded them by entering into an online world. One couple who met and fell in love through playing EverQuest and later started dating was one example of this. The girl in the couple was so cute when she recalled the first time she openly “flirted” with her partner online. She recollected the account as if it had happened in person, even though it was her avatar that had done the flirting. It was so interesting to see how powerful and real these online relationships are. Many of the users explained that they felt closer to their online friends than others in your life. An area of the psychology literature on this area demonstrates that online interaction often leads to higher levels of self-disclosure and honesty. I thought to myself – this must be really therapeutic to someone who does not have a person playing that role in their “real” life.
So, in short, I am still a little leery about MMOs, but I do see some of the positive benefits in them now. I started thinking – what if I used the online world to meet people who shared my interests that I wouldn’t otherwise ever know? What if I connected with others who speak French, or love to cook, or enjoy travel. I think in many ways, the virtual world allows us to escape to places we ordinarily couldn’t go. We just have to make sure we stay grounded in reality, always being thankful for what we do have but not being afraid to take glimpses into these virtual worlds. I think that’s the bottom line: let the online world compliment your life, not replace it.