I first realised that Dark Age of Camelot was not going to be something I could simply walk away from when my friend Talien quit the game. It wasn’t until he quit that I realised I really valued his friendship, that I had, in fact, considered him a ‘real’ friend.
I’d been through the process of making ‘virtual’ friends before. I played a text-based strategy game called Utopia, way back in the last century, and, as a member of a group of very silly roleplayers called the Danish Brotherhood (nothing to do with Danes, everything to do with pastry), made several friends whose houses I visited, and whom I corresponded with for years after we all stopped playing Utopia. The difference between those relationships and my friendship with Talien was that my Utopian friends were only very loosely tied to the game. Our relationships existed chiefly on forums and via email; our shared world was one we’d created rather than the one the designers of Utopia had created for us. (More on that at some point). Talien and I on the other hand interacted mainly within DAoC, though we had spent a weekend together IRL, at a mini-meet in Brighton. We had not established habits of communication outside the game that would carry us through his ceasing to play. So we lost touch, and I grieved. I became confused about my other friends in the game. How ‘real’ were those relationships? Who would I miss, if they quit? Would anyone miss me if I did? And if we did miss one another – was that only within the context of the game, or had we taken root in one another’s lives in a way that would transcend the virtual world and affect our ‘real’ lives?
In this essay, written way back in 1998, Raph Koster explains how, when a member of the UO community died in a car crash, the grief the other members felt changed their perception of the game:
In the end, the social bonds of the people in a virtual environment make it more than just a game. They make it Real. Sometimes it takes a moment of grief to make people realize it, and sometimes people just come to an awareness over time, but the fundamental fact remains: when we make a friend, hurt someone’s feelings, suffer a loss, or accomplish something in an online world, it’s real. It’s not “just a game.”
So we can take as established the fact that for those of us involved, online relationships are as real as any other relationships, and online ‘communities’ have social bonds that make virtual worlds real. Does that mean that those communities behave in the same ways as communities formed through other media? I don’t think they (we) do; the issues of identity and ownership that Sharkith has been looking at over at The Empty Pixel feed into this discussion, as do the strengths and weaknesses of the virtual world in and around which the ‘community’ has aggregated, the methods of communication the playerbase uses to talk to one another, and the methods of communication the company uses to talk to the playerbase.
For me, the social bonds between myself and other players did not become clear until we had started to share more than just the virtual world – exchanging details of the other areas of our lives and establishing other, reliable, methods of communication that allowed me to beleive that our friendships were stable and would persist outside the game should any of us leave. I read somewhere (yeah yeah, I’ll try and find the reference) that players who participate in forums subscribe to MMOs for one average 50% longer than those who don’t. I think social ties are the likely reason. This would give weight to the argument that forums and all other arenas attached to but outside of the game itself need to be considered as part of the world; they are the foundation of the ‘community’ and are dismissed at the peril of the game-runners.