This paper explores the potential for individuals to form and strengthen friendships in online gaming environments by consulting 14 previous studies surrounding the topic. There are multiple online gaming types that facilitate communication between gamers such as massive multiplayer online game (MMOG), massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) and virtual reality games. In some of these games, there is also the opportunity for gamers to create an avatar that does not have to reflect their offline appearance allowing them to explore their identity. This paper explores the potential for online gamers to form new friendships through their common interest in gaming and online communications and if those online friendships have the potential to become offline friendships. The paper will also look at the possibility to strengthen the bond between existing friends by including them in their online gaming experience. There is also a small focus in this paper on individuals that struggle to make friends in offline settings, specifically focusing on individuals with an autism spectrum disorder, to see if it is possible for them to form meaningful friendships in an online gaming environment.
Keywords: friendship, online friendships, online gaming, multiplayer games, MMOG, MMORPG, guild structure, virtual reality, avatar, identity, virtual identity, autism.
In the modern world of technology, there are many non-traditional ways to communicate. While many have adapted to the additions of emails, text messaging, instant messaging and even social media, the electronic gaming world is a new communication platform for many. Thanks to the online environments available on the internet, there are now multiple platforms that provide the opportunity to meet and interact with others online and it helps users build and maintain relationships (Domahidi et al., 2014, p. 107-8). The internet is becoming an increasingly popular method for individuals of multiple generations to meet people and make friends. Over half of American teenagers have made a friend online and almost a third of them have made five or more internet friendships (Schultz, 2015). There are many ways for individuals of any gender from any age group to connect with new people and be social online, however, females are more likely to use social networking platforms and form friendships by discussing common interests on public post and in private chats and males are more likely to form friendships in the online gaming world. (Schultz, 2015).
Here is where the focus of this paper was prompted. Forming friendships in an online gaming environment has been made possible thanks to virtual worlds and MMORPGs, especially ones that encourage teamwork or interaction with other players. The interest lies in if and how gamers can open up about themselves to other gamers and build friendships, how these friendship are beneficial to gamers, if these friendships have the potential to become offline friends after meeting in an online gaming world and how pre-existing offline relationships can be affected.
There are different types of online gaming environments that allow for communication between players. One type of gaming environment is MMORPGs which allow for a large number of gamers to play simultaneously in a virtual environment acting out a role within the game’s story (Bostan, 2009, p. 4). A popular MMORPG is World of Warcraft, also referred to by gamers as WoW, an online game where gamers fight each other in order to level up and unlock new items and titles (Lee et al., 2012, p. 301). Notably, it is in these types of MMORPGs, the online gaming environments provide gamers with the opportunity to be part of clan or guild that requires teamwork and interaction between the team members in order to play the game successfully together (Trepte et al., 2012, p. 833). Some online games and virtual worlds provide world-like environments, such as Second Life – an online computer-based world that features world-like spaces to interact with others in and mimic offline activities (Linares et al., 2011, p. 50). However, there are other virtual worlds that have less world-like environments, such as Minecraft – a digital three-dimensional game that allows social interaction while also providing creative, survival, adventure and building challenges (Stone et al., 2018, p. 1). These types of MMOGs provide social platforms that can have players from all over the world interacting and socialising with one another (Tang et al., 2008, p. 1). While there are many different virtual realities, they often allow gamers to not only adopt a username but also create their own virtual identity or avatar, create objects and partake in activities that are common in the gamer’s offline life (Linares et al., 2014, pp. 51-64). However, these virtual identities do not necessarily reflect their offline appearance or personality.
Heider and Massanari (2014, p. 63) state that the challenge with computer-mediated communication is that there are no physical contextual cues; however, combine the online environment with a customisable avatar and gamers have another way to convey their personality and shape their online identity rather than just text-based computer-mediated communication (Domahidi & Massanari, 2010, p. 64). While Linares et al. (2011, p. 52) mention that these online virtual worlds allow for anonymity, they also provide the opportunity for gamers to explore their identity away from their offline body.
There is also a socialising aspect in many of these online virtual worlds. That socialising aspect is often a laid back communication environment that allows gamers to feel they could speak their mind and be heard without the interference of visual social cues, suggesting the online virtual world provides them equality and a more pleasant and satisfying socialisation (Griffiths et al., 2011, p. 28). Being anonymous also allows gamers to feel more comfortable with self-disclosing information about themselves and it is believed that over time they will gradually reveal more of their personality and opinions if they desire less superficial friendships (Heider & Massanari, 2014, p. 63). Indeed, almost 40 percent of gamers feel more comfortable using the online gaming platforms as an outlet to discuss serious and sensitive topics with other gamers than they do discussing these topics with friends and family in their offline life (Sundberg, 2018, p. 106; Griffiths et al., 2011, p. 26). Given some individuals can talk to other online gamers about their offline lives, it is plausible that their communication can form bonds that could lead to friendship.
In a study of over 900 gamers, it was found that approximately 75 percent of gamers had a friend they had met through online gaming. (Sundberg, 2018, p. 106; Griffiths et al., 2011, p. 26). This is a rather large percentage of the gamers sampled and does present hope for the possibility of online gaming friendships. Developing online friendships can be enjoyable for gamers, especially those looking to create new online friendships, and it is possible for these online friendships to transform into an offline friendship (Griffiths et al., 2011, p. 21; Domahidi et al., 2014, p. 113). It is believed that by sharing the experiences within the game, online gaming helps form and maintain new friendships but it also provides the potential to get to know these online gaming friends outside of the game in and possibly even in an offline environment (Kowert et al., 2014, p. 448; Domahidi et al., 2014, pp. 109-110). Ghuman and Griffiths (2012, p. 14 & 26) even believe gamers who play RPGs are likely to make good friends in the game and meet them in an offline setting, sometimes even in small groups, however, they are unlikely to meet up to play the game while in the same vicinity. One study found that almost 43 percent met online friends in offline situations, though females are more likely to than males (Griffiths et al., 2011, p. 26).
While some may believe these friendships within online games are less valuable, it appears that it can actually help gamers to make more social connections (Domahidi et al., 2014, p. 107). Sundberg (2018, p. 109) found that gamers with a form of autism have more friends than non-gaming autistic individuals and that 40.5 percent of autistic gamers said they had met a close friend through online gaming. Stone et al. (2018, p. 15) also found in their research that individuals with autism benefitted from the support received when they initiated and sustained social interactions with other gamers online. This suggests that individuals who struggle in social settings offline, such as those with autism, may still have the opportunity to make social connections through online gaming.
There are believed to be benefits to these online to offline friendships as well as positive effects on existing friendships, such as gaining more social connections, strengthening friendships, learning about other cultures and the opportunity to work on teamwork (Domahidi et al., 2014, p. 113; Griffiths et al., 2011, p. 26 & 32). Indeed, while it may be believed by some individuals that by playing social online games they would be socially isolating themselves in their offline life, however, gamers have been known to include their friends and family in some of these games (Ghuman & Griffiths, 2012, p. 14). A study by Pew Research Centre found that 78 percent of online gamers surveyed felt closer with their existing offline friends and 52 percent even felt closer to other gamers they did not consider offline friends as a result of playing together in online gaming worlds (Lenhart et al., 2015). Gamers use the guild-structured games to maintain and potentially extend existing friendships by bringing offline friends into the game, (Domahidi et al., 2014, pp. 109-110)
Kowert et al. (2014, p. 448) stated that sharing the gaming experience helped develop new social relationships and maintain existing ones. Indeed, the finding of the 14 studies consulted for this paper all indicated that new friendships can be formed between gamers and existing friendships can be strengthened in online gaming environments. However, there are inconsistencies in the facts surrounding these findings.
Limitations of These Studies
A lot of the information for the studies discussed in this paper were obtained through self-reporting via surveys and interviews and, consequently, cannot be considered conclusive. Most of the studies also focused on limited age groups and locations and scarcely factored other potential influences such as ethnicity, religion, sexuality, socioeconomic status, mental health factors which impact the reliability of the findings discussed in this paper.
The overall consensus from the previous studies consulted for this paper is that online gaming is a great potential platform for gamers to meet likeminded individuals and build friendships. It appears to provide a safe space for gamers to express themselves without the risk of being rejected in an offline setting. There is also the opportunity for individuals who struggle in social situations, such as those with some form of autism, to make connections with other gamers.
While meaningful friendships both solely in online gaming worlds and those that have transferred to offline friendships are possible, it should be noted that most of those players spend on average at least one whole day worth of time in the game each week and that those with less social interactions end up spending less time online (Ghuman & Griffiths, 2012, p. 27-28). Given this information, one potential avenue of further study could be to discover if there is any correlation between hours spent in the online gaming world and the number of friendships formed and how strong those friendships are.
It may also be beneficial to look more into the age groups of these friendships to determine if it is more of a potential for youth, young adults or more mature aged gamers or which age group are more likely to have the stronger bond with other online gamers. While looking into the influence of age, it could also be interesting to see if variables such as race, location, family situation, relationship status or socioeconomic status make any difference in the formation of online gaming friendships. While it may not deter a gamer from trying to form more social connections via online gaming nor encourage them to try, it would strengthen the studies regarding friendships formed in online gaming environments to have more information on surrounding these variables.
Another potential focus of further online gaming friendship studies would be to find if the online gaming world is beneficial to those suffering a form of mental health issue, such as depression or a stream of anxiety. This may not seem like an obvious connection, however, Sundberg (2018) mentioned thee online gaming environments being beneficial for individuals with an autistic spectrum disorder. One of the struggles for those with a form of autism is often regarding their lack of skills or comfort in social situations which is much like individuals suffering from some forms of mental health issues, such as social anxiety.
Continuing from the last suggestion, another area to look at would be what prompts individuals to actively seek out other online gamers to communicate with. For example, was there an offline life influence that pushed them to confide in someone in their online gaming worlds or maybe they could have hoped to develop a friendship with someone who has similar interests. There is also the possibility they may not have sought out individuals for potential friendships but have found themselves in situations where they are forming a bond with another online gamer. It could be interesting to discover why they decide to attempt transforming the online friendship into an offline friendship.
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