Fantasy, Reality, or Both?

•September 30, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Just how real are online relationships, and what’s the attraction?

It can start innocent enough. My own forays into online gaming were a natural progression from the single player games I grew up playing; games such as The Elder Scrolls series in which it was just me, and the computer-generated environment and all its challenges and story-lines.

After playing my first MMORPG (that’s Massively-Multiplayer-Online-Role-Playing-Game, folks…), everything changed. The challenges within the game were such that I needed the help of other online gamers to complete. When I first started playing EverQuest 2 I kept to myself and skipped the harder content. The longer I played, however, the more I realised that I needed to cooperate to progress faster. This led me to joining my first ‘guild’.

For those who have not played an online game, guilds are essentially groups of gamers that have gotten together in-game to play regularly and help each other through the game. Those who have played online games, and have been part of a guild will also know the sorts of dramas, intrigue, love and hate, comradeship and bitchiness that goes on.

Non-gamers will at this point be thinking I have just described a typical episode of Shortland Street. What is scary is the fact that unlike the fictional world of Dr. Ropata and the Warner Brothers (and please ignore how just out of touch I am with the current story-lines), what goes on in online worlds can and does affect real lives.

Having moved on to other MMOs since EverQuest, I have seen many things; people stealing in-game items or money, people talking about others behind their backs, exclusive cliques within groups, online romance, betrayal, it goes on. The fact that it all occurs online does not make it any less real for the players who have spent literally hours per day progressing their online character through the game – there is a large investment of time for even the most casual gamer in MMORPGs.

The theft of items in game is very serious, and usually results in exile of the offending character, and further ostracism from the rest of the gaming community. In any situation where you get a large number of people together, there are going to be good and bad eggs, that is a given. What is interesting is how seriously people take it. You hear stories from China where a young man goes to the house of the person who stole his high level and hard-won virtual sword, and murders him. How does it get to this point?

Within guilds there are always dramas coming up, some of which bring about schisms so irreconcilable that huge numbers of the guild can leave, form their own guild, and so on. Usually these occur because of personality problems or for ideological reasons. People who would have gotten on together very well in a professional working relationship suddenly find that the ego is all when it comes to online teamwork.

Online romance is something I have seen quite a lot of since beginning to play online games. At first I was oblivious to this sort of thing going on, but I have come to acknowledge this phenomenon as widespread, and even common. When playing extended hours online with the same people, a bond does form. People begin to share things with you that they probably never would with anyone they know in real life. Perhaps it is the lack of consequence behind this, the knowledge that you are never going to meet this person, and the feeling of anonymity. Flirting begins, though maybe innocently at first, can burgeon into something more.

Romantic relationships have attracted the attention of the media for several years now. A documentary called Second Skin looks at this in particular. There have also been CNN special reports on virtual romance and cases where online partners have divorced their real life partners in order to be with each other. Again, how does it get this far?

From my observations, it can seem easier to fall for someone you have never met – you can put your own ideal expectations on that person and never be proven wrong. Many of these sorts of relationships fall apart when the couple meet, as they are never able to live up to each others expectations. Many more of these relationships are complete successes, and continue in real life.

There is a great risk involved. In addition to the disruption of a current real life relationship, as mentioned, there is an online safety factor to consider. I have known of one woman who took several online ‘partners’. I remember her saying “well why not? This is not real life, there are no consequences”. Once this was found out by the other party, however, there was as much hurt involved as if it had occurred in real life. The dangers came about when one or more of these wronged parties were able to obtain real life information about her, including where she worked. Although I never heard of anything resulting from that, it was a real wake-up call, and a far cry from the safe single player games I remember playing.

So I ask a third time, how does it come to this? How does a fictional universe affect real lives to such a degree? The answer I feel is in our own approach to the online spaces, our expectations of it to be able to fill that hole within us that houses all our unfulfilled desires.

With online games moving out of the domain of ‘uber-geekdom’ and becoming more and more accessible to the average Joe and Jane, it is inevitable that the increase in social interaction online will bring about problems such as these. The ‘online population boom’ is still very recent, and I think we have not yet had enough time to learn how to deal with the communication issues in this new forum and how to behave with one another. I will be very interested to see how this changes in the future, as yet more people plug in and go online.

In the meantime, I think I’m going to stick to Tetris.