Online gaming is about more than playing. It's how an increasing number of people are forging friendships in a society where connecting online is enhancing and in some cases replacing face-to-face bonding time, researchers say.
After the usual 12½-hour shift at his family's bakery in the Jamaica coastal town of Lucea, Brian Wong has a nightly routine: dinner, jump in the shower, call his girlfriend, then settle down for a few hours with his buddies — via Xbox Live.
"I don't go out a lot," says the 30-year-old Wong, who works six days a week, starting each day at 6:30 a.m. "I'm strictly at home. Only on Sundays do I go out. At night, I'm online" — via Xbox Live's multiplayer and voice chat. The Toronto native, who first moved to Lucea in 2002 to help manage the family business, stays connected with Canadian friends through slick hockey matches and bouts of blasting away zombies or armed warfare.
"When the Xbox is on, we're not always even playing games — we're just connected," Wong says. He claims that through Xbox Live, he has rekindled childhood friendships, as well as cultivated new relationships. "Sometimes we talk for an hour before I even put a game into the console."
Dmitri Williams, assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communications, says people are increasingly using online gaming as a means to connect with others. "As we've basically moved out of cities and into suburbs, commuted more and lived farther away from each other physically, our communities have been steadily in decline," Williams says.
"These 'third places,' where everybody can come together — that aren't home and aren't work — are really vital to having healthy communities and lives. In some cultures it's the coffee house. In some cultures it's the bar. Cheers is the prototypical third place. Everybody walks in, they shout your name." Williams adds: "If you want that kind of community, but you have no outlet for it and you have no good way to meet people, [online gaming] is an outlet."
Whether gamers are teaming up for sporting matches on consoles, battling mystical monsters on PCs or running a virtual farmstead on Facebook, web-based relationships can complement face-to-face ones, says Nick Yee, a California-based researcher who has studied internet gamers for 10 years.
"They're using it as a way to sustain and maintain existing relationships, rather than [gaming] being the sole source of all their relationships. It becomes part of a healthy palette [of balanced interactions]," says Yee, founder of the Daedelus Project, which examined fans of massive multiplayer online (MMO) games like World of Warcraft.
Another draw of online social interaction is the variety of voices it offers.
"Offline, we tend to work with, run into and hang out with people who are more like us than not — based on gender, age, race, education," Williams says. "That's not always the case online and especially in video games, because it turns out that wanting to blow up the mothership or kill the dragon or solve the puzzle cuts across a lot of these categories in a way that opera or 24 or South Park or PBS don't. It's a lot more of a common ground."
Retired schoolteacher Peter Knowles says his real-life relationships are fairly stable, but claims that playing minigames on Facebook has allowed him to mix with people from different circles. Aside from letting him renew and maintain regular contact with family and former students, playing minigames like Lexulous, Farm Ville, Café World and Pet Pupz lets the 61-year-old strike new bonds.
"I've connected with people halfway around the world, and they're very generous and kind people," says Knowles, who lives in Toronto. "You get to see who does what and if they return favours and whatnot. You get to see how they are by their comments.
"There are a lot of genuine personalities out there. [I met] one young lady from China who was doing her practice teaching, so I got to share some of my experiences with her. It's not just a social network, but it's also a communication tool."
Virtual connections have a reputation for letting users get to know a person "inside out," since first impressions don't rely on the superficial physical and visual clues of face-to-face meetings.
"All you have to go on is, 'How does this person act in stressful situations? Does this person run away when things go wrong? Is this person generous or greedy? Is this someone I can count on?'" Yee says. Because of this, online gaming can be a valuable way to reveal true identities.
"Online games can be incredibly character-revealing," Yee says. "It's the personal integrity that underlies every decision you make — and which other people can read into. That's what's so powerful."
On the flip side, online relationships can often be plagued by extremes — both positive and negative — because of a lack of communication cues, Yee says. When a relationship is conducted solely via text or voice chat, messages can easily be misinterpreted. With gamers often quite emotionally invested in their online avatars or personas, this can lead to in-game drama that non-gamers simply don't understand.
"Everything kind of intensifies, both the good and the bad, in virtual worlds," Yee says.
As with much in life, balance is the key. For instance, after rekindling several friendships through gaming, Brian Wong says he and his Xbox chums are "trying to get closer and make that relationship stronger by going out for dinner and movies" when he's back in Canada for visits.
"You can have a relatively shallow relationship through these games and you can have relatively deep ones. The deep ones take longer and are harder to form than they would have been face to face, which is still the gold standard," Williams notes.
"If you add a lot of time and friends online, it's probably going to take away from some time or friends offline. The big question is, what's the net effect? Are the people you're meeting online better or worse for you than the people you're meeting offline?"
The psychology of social gaming
For most people, virtual relationships are largely secondary to face-to-face connections. Gamers with existing psychological vulnerabilities in their day-to-day lives — such as depression or low self-esteem — can become overly dependant on in-game connections.
Some teens, for instance, "who feel they don't have a sense of control or agency in real life, they can log on and literally cast fireballs and resurrect the dead," Yee says.
"If you have a healthy psychological state, [online gaming relationships] complement your existing social relationships and help you satisfy certain needs that you might not be finding elsewhere," he says.
The red flag goes up when a person begins eschewing face-to-face relationships in favour of online ones.
"The gaming is a symptom. The cause is usually elsewhere," Yee says. "Even if you take a game away … you still have to identify the root problem."
Jessica Wong writes about the arts for CBC News.