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If you’ve ever read the Everquest or World of Warcraft Widows mailing lists (a bit of a guilty pleasure), you’d think that the road to nowhere good (really fast) has an online role-playing game at every bend:  players leaving otherwise satisfying real life relationships to selfishly seek their romantic pleasure online.  It all starts innocently enough…  relatively normal people with relatively normal lives start playing online games and voila! discover that their identities/interactions aren’t limited by the narrow physical world definitions they’ve become accustomed to.

To be sure, this tendency sometimes leaves the devastation of abandoned/abused spouses and children in its wake.

The problem is that the issues of the satisfactions found in virtual life tend to be rather messily bundled in with discussions about addiction, and as with most effects research, make loose correlations that ignore the actual causes more or less completely.  But as Nick Yee and some bona fide medical researchers from Cedars-Sinai pointed out at the Games * Learning * Society conference a couple of years ago, the truth is much trickier.

In fact, Nick has evolved his discussion of problematic usage into an acknowledgement of the seductive nature of virtual worlds – why focus on a symptom when we should be focusing on the underlying compulsion?  Or as he put it (as awed silence settled over the room and goosebumps rose on my arms): “Until we solve the problem of making the world a perfect place for everyone, is it pathological to prefer being where you have social status and respect?”

For really, how many people feel truly respected or valued in their real lives?  But more importantly, how many people are really known by their friends/partners and can achieve real intimacy within the context of their physical relationships? If we think of the human body as another technology to be mediated, there are quite a lot of people (most of us, one could say, to some degree or another) who feel a sufficient degree of discomfort with their physical presence that the only way for them to achieve real intimacy is via the affordances of technologies that are less intimidating to those who have achieved a high degree of fluency in them.  No stinky breath, discomfort, awkward speech, spinach-in-teeth, or pesky pheromones to get in the way; just pure, unadulterated brain-to-brain interaction via technologies in which one has a great degree of proficiency.  How satisfying.

Then, combine that with the opportunities for intensely shared experiences in online role playing games, and here’s human interaction that goes way beyond chatrooms or idle chit-chat with the bank teller (it always stuns me when luddites complain that the fabric of society is melting away because people no longer enjoy talking to public servants and people on the bus, as if that was such a socially cohesive activity to begin with).  And it certainly goes way beyond the conversations of your average married couple with 2.1 kids, unsatisfying jobs, and mortgage payments beyond comprehension.

But is it possible that the seduction is based in post-modern narcissism?  Are virtual worlds vast playgrounds of funny mirrors that allow us to see/inhabit/be seen in all sorts of parts of our fragmented selves that our largely modernist societies tend to largely ignore?  As Miroslaw Filiciak puts it, “To be visible means to be real.  When we make ourselves visible on the screen, our self becomes more real…  Our self is more liquid than ever… if people play games eagerly to be able to shift their identities, they must be deriving pleasure from that.’

Philosophical meandering aside, there is something quite tangible at work here that is apparent when one examines the richness of relationships cultivated across multiple venues, both physical and virtual.  I’m particularly interested in what I call the layering effect:  what happens when we layer virtual relationships on top of physical ones?  Is the resulting relationship greater than the sum of its parts?

So, when researcher Aaron Delwiche spent months courting his girlfriend in World of Warcraft, did that experience, in combination with their physical world interactions, result in a stronger, deeper relationship on the whole?  And are there different aspects of ourselves that can be best explored via different channels?  Does one part of myself emerge via IM, another via phone, another on my blog, another while raiding in an online RPG? And does someone who can experience me on all those channels get a more comprehensive view of who I am?  How often in real life do people get to show off their butt-kicking, heroic selves, for instance?  (unless you are a Superhero pizza delivery guy, but I digress…)

Or does all this online flirtation really only result on us still being alone, but merely alone together?

Interesting data point:  Psychology Today reported in the May/June 2006 issue on a Japanese study that found ‘Text-messaging makes for more intimate friendships.  Pals who only communicate face-to-face have less chummy relationships than those who also let their fingers do the talking’.  In the future, rather than an either/or proposition of physical friends or virtual ones, will our true friends be the ones we have both kinds of relationships with?  Is the virtual+physical relationship the new gold standard for love?

On a less positive note, do these forays into virtual spaces somehow detract from romance in real life?

Let us know if you’ve experienced love in an online game and we’ll feature your story in a future article.


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