Friendship, travel and Warcraft

Most critics simply don’t understand the social side of massively multiplayer online games. Here’s an exploration of something rather personal: the friendships my wife and I have made in Warcraft, and how games can function as a unique kind of social space.

In April 2008, my friend Jon flew from North Carolina to visit me in England. Jon manages a store in a small town in Gaston County, just outside Charlotte, and this was the first time he’d travelled outside America; he’d had to get his first ever passport for the trip. It was also the first time we’d met face to face, although we’d known each other for almost two years.

Jon and I met in World of Warcraft, a game that my wife, Cat, and I have played ever since it launched in 2004. We met because he and Cat had the same dress. Jon plays a (male) character of the same in-game race as her – they’re both Tauren Druids – and when he saw her walking past sporting a “white wedding dress” he quickly equipped an identical item. This was so, he later explained, he could use the “looks like we both shop at the same store” line to break the ice.

It worked. They exchanged a few lines of banter via in-game chat. I joined in, and it went from there. We started to help each other out with in-game tasks, and became members of the same Guild: an in-game collective that links like-minded players together in a loosely feudal structure. As we got to know each other better, we moved on to talking through microphones and headsets while playing. We swapped emails, linked up on Facebook, discussed books and films, and pieced together the details of our very different lives. Jon was smart, in his early twenties and had dropped out of college due to funding difficulties; Cat and I were working long hours in medicine and publishing, and Warcraft offered the option of a sociable, absorbing evening “out,” away from the pressures of daily life.

Like most massively multiplayer online game worlds, Warcraft’s objectives are multiple and there is no ultimate measure of victory. Although the action can be frantic at times, the game offers a playing experience that is expansive, even meditative. You are “role playing,” not because you’re sitting at a desk pretending to be an orc, but because a spectrum of clear, well-rewarded roles are on offer for your character: exploring, defeating monsters, crafting items, trading, mining resources, building relationships with other players. As Jon put it, “it’s like coming into your first day of school and finding that these set roles are already known: you’re meeting new people, but you already have goals, purposes. It lubricates that first meeting.”

Jon was the first gaming friend of mine to visit us in London, but not the last: since his stay, several others have made the journey across the Atlantic, while my wife and I have travelled up and down America’s east coast visiting and staying with people we first got to know through video games. There’s a husband and wife, Jason and Kim Long, who live with their three children in the outskirts of colonial Williamsburg. There’s Patrick, now serving in the navy; there’s Frank, from Virginia Beach, who came to a group gathering at Jason and Kim’s place. Also in our Guild there’s Chris, who’s heading out this summer to do the catering for his game-mate Brad’s wedding in Florida. They’re never met in person, but they’ve probably spent more hours in far franker conversations over the last few years than many of the guests who’ll be attending. Gradually, many of the blank spaces on my map of America have been populated by these individuals’ voices.

We often think of video games – and of digital culture in general – as a substitute for worldly encounters, and a troubling one at that. Yet our appetite for the digital has grown hand in hand with an increasing recognition of the value of the live and the interpersonal; and, above all, of the importance of the social aspects of technology. More than anything else, it is these forces that are driving forward the next stages of the digital revolution: smartphones, social networks, information streamed from trusted people and sources.

Within this frantically interconnected arena, games offer something that remains unique: a live, long-term interaction with other people. Unlike a Facebook profile or a blog entry, you cannot craft your gaming self at leisure. At play, within a virtual world, you are constantly reacting to the people and challenges around you. You’re free from most of the conventional constraints of “live” situations, but under all kinds of other pressure – something that can mean either streams of insults, or spontaneous acts of kindness. Either way, it’s startlingly fertile ground for finding like-minded others. Jon and I bonded over our love of Mark Twain; Cat and Kim over a mutual relish at being confident women in a world packed with nervous males.

For all its apparent isolation, one very real activity that has much in common with playing games like Warcraft is travel. Game worlds are places you visit; arenas that you enter in order to have experiences and encounters. In the words of Richard Bartle, the British programmer and game designer who co-created the first multiplayer virtual world in 1980, they are places that “allow you to be yourself in ways you can’t in the real world.” Even a player’s relationship with game worlds has, Bartle told me, the trajectory of an archetypical journey. “The virtual world you go to is this strange new place you must discover,” he argues. “And the first thing you have is this road of trials where you try to find your feet. Then you gain knowledge; you are tempted and tested; and so on, until at the end players gradually stop because the realm has lost its mystical significance. And this corresponds to the end of the plot.” At which point, as I have increasingly found with Warcraft, what you are left with is the people you have met.

It’s easy to be utopian about game worlds, just as it’s easy to paint them as abysses of violence and depredation. Both perspectives are equally useless when it comes to engaging with games as they actually are: new places in our lives; tools waiting to be used or abused. One sign that the debate may finally be shifting beyond the old polarities is a recent book by American sociologist William Sims Bainbridge, The Warcraft Civilization, which takes as its starting point the statement that “World of Warcraft is more than a game.” Unfortunately, alongside its sociological insights the book also provides an unintentional showcase for the less impressive aspects of gaming, with laboured re-tellings of in-game scenarios that make them sound exactly like what they are: genre fictions of little artistic or intellectual merit. Such paraphrase is doomed to failure because it takes us far away from where the real interest lies: in the fact that these are a new kind of both communal space and community. My wife and I use games in a way that’s far from unique: as not only a social tool, but a destination, a delight, a distraction, a refuge.

Together with the looser and more diffuse phenomenon of social networks, this space is only going to grow over the course of the present century. Reality is not being overtaken our outmoded, but it is being augmented. I feel no need to reach for inverted commas when I write that I met someone within a game. For an increasing number of people, the ranks of their most “real” friends include people they have yet to meet in the flesh.

Last year, I interviewed a husband and wife, Ville and Liz, who met each other through an online game: EverQuest, an ancestor of World of Warcraft, which launched in 1999. He lived in Finland, she lived on the west coast of America: they spoke for many hours online, emailed, finally met in Paris, and ended up living together. It’s the kind of story that is usually told today for its novelty value – much as, twenty years ago, it would have seemed slightly outrageous for one person to have found a partner via a website.

For Ville and Liz, though, travelling across the world to meet someone from a game was at root no stranger than travelling into a game and finding someone worth meeting there. “I find that I have a tendency to be more open with people that I meet online,” Liz argued. “It’s easier to be more negative, too, but I think you’re quite a bit closer to the people who you do really like.” Ville agreed: “For me, real relationships had often tended to be more superficial. In real life it takes a lot more for people to express their true feelings.” When it comes to real feelings, a little unreality can sometimes be just what we need.