The role online gaming communities play in social bonding for marginalized individuals
The focus of this paper is on how online communities in MMORPG games offer a space for individuals to connect to other like-minded individuals. It explores how communities are built through the interaction and collaboration needed when performing a task together as a group. While there are some concerns that electronic media like social media networking, television and online gaming are weakening the social bonds that would be formed when interacting with others in the real world, this paper seeks to argue that these online gaming communities do the opposite in that it offers a space where communities are formed with strong ties that often extend into the offline world.
Online gaming and communities
A pre-cursor to the online computer gaming industry as we know it today, was the video arcade game halls that many young adolescents frequented after school in the 80s and 90s. Although strong social bonds were formed around these video games, it can be argued that the bonds formed in online gaming communities are equally strong, albeit not always formed in person. In an article written in 2013 for The Guardian, Keith Stuart tells this story:
I hated senior school. I was lonely, I didn’t fit in, I found gangs of boys intimidating and I couldn’t work out the rules. I wasn’t specifically bullied, but I was … marginalised. I had computer games though, and through them I met some friends who played and swapped new titles, classics like Paradroid, Way of the Exploding Fist and Elite. One of those boys and I started making games together for the Dragon 32 computer (Stuart, 2013).
Stuart goes on to describe the friendships that were formed over many hours spent playing and developing online games together, as well as feeling included in a bigger community that ultimately aided him through his adolescent years. Although online computer gaming started out as Multi User Dungeons (MUDs) which were largely text based interactive games, it has since evolved to Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Gaming communities with rich graphics and cinematic style gameplay. The men and women who play these games are the same boys and girls who use to meet up after school and on weekends in video arcade game halls to play video games such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Pac-Man and the like. Online gaming communities such as the guilds found in World of Warcraft, play an important role in giving a platform to marginalised youth, adults with certain social disorders and individuals with disabilities, by providing an avenue through which to connect with other like-minded individuals to form communities and foster lasting friendships.
Williams, Ducheneaut, Xiong, Yee and Nickell (2006, p. 340) argue that World of Warcraft offers a ‘third place’ with different communities formed by like-minded individuals who foster relationships / friendships while playing the game, with some of these friendships extending to the real world as well. Some scholars are concerned that mediums such as online gaming, social media and television are having a negative impact on community building as the nature of the medium is passive and disengaging. However, on the other side of the spectrum lies the fact that the Internet has brought together people across different continents and time zones and have provided platforms for individuals to connect and form communities. One such place in particular is the guilds that are found in MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft. MMO games allow members to communicate with each other through online chatting while playing the game. It is this chatting that allows members to form relationships, build communities and bond with each other. These communities are seen as a new ‘third place’ in that it offers a space for people to meetup outside of their normal home and work lives, similar to meeting up in a pub or restaurant (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006).
The collaborative nature of games such as MMOs means that members of guilds have to work together to achieve a mutual goal for example slaying a particularly difficult opponent. Achieving this goal can often take a lot of time, meaning that these members spend a lot of their time online together, all the while communicating with each other through the chat platforms in the game. While the tone of the conversations in these ‘third places’ are often kept light-hearted, expressions of genuine concern for fellow guild mates’ welfare proves that the communities formed in online gaming environments extends the friendships to the offline world as well. One such example was discussed in the article by Steinkuehler and Williams (2006) in which a player of the game Lineage II was facing a hurricane in his hometown. There were several expressions of concern for his welfare as well as his guild officers sending him text messages to check that he was safe. This supportive culture proves that the online gaming communities form strong social bonds across geographical areas as facilitated by the nature of this technology (p. 900). Gamers who met while playing online games together will often socialise offline as well by meeting up in informal settings such as pubs or when going to gaming conventions (Caratarescu-Petrica, 2015, p. 28).
While some scholars may argue that online gaming communities are not an all-inclusive culture, in a news article on the online Wired magazine in 2014, Moore talks about a gay man finding other gay men who enjoyed online gaming and identified as somewhat of a gay geek gamer community. The article goes on to explain how this individual found an entire community on Reddit (a social news aggregator) who had the same interests as him. Although the community was online, the individual endeavoured to meet up with others from this community in real life. From this drive came the first gay gamer convention called GaymerX. Based on this one could argue that offline events born out of online communities further proves that strong social connections are formed through virtual communities and offer a space for individuals who may otherwise have felt ostracized to come together and share their passions and experiences with others like them. This hypothesis is further supported by studies performed by Trepte, Reinecke and Jeuchems (2011), where it was found that “the underlying mechanisms of social support in an online gaming context resemble the psychological principles of offline friendship formation”. (p. 838)
Most of the popular MMORPG games require players to create an avatar to represent them in the game world. Studies done in players playing Second Life have shown that these individuals will identify with their online avatars and be pre-occupied with the presentation of their avatar. They will also create an identity for themselves in this Second Life world (Caratarescu-Petrica, 2015, p. 29). Individuals also admit to having diverse / intersectional identities. In the popular MMO game World of Warcraft players identify “on several levels which intersect each other.” (2015, p. 40). Gamers identify not only with their fellow guild members in the online world (friends and family with whom they play regularly) but also identify with (or sometimes reject) their fellow nationals. In studies done by Jenson, Taylor, de Castell and Dilouya it was found that individuals would also in some instances create avatars that represent an “idealised version of the self” (2015, p. 863). It therefore stands to reason that the communities built in these games provide a space for individuals to explore different aspects of their identities. Identifying with the communities built in games like WoW are analogous to sports fans identifying with their favourite sports team. Because these virtual communities offer a safe space for individuals to explore their identities, it contributes to the feeling of community and the building thereof.
Online gaming communities also offer relief from the real-world stresses that can often be experienced by people with physical disabilities. In an article written for the Washington Post (2019) Miller describes how several disabled people found new life online as it offered them a platform where they were able to live out their fantasies and find an escape from their real-life worlds. As in the movie Avatar, these virtual worlds offer a platform for people with disabilities to do things that they would not normally be able to do in real-life. The article further explains how these individuals sometimes find fame by streaming their game playing to others, thereby feeling more accepted in a community regardless of not being able to physically interact with others. Disabled people are able to find relief from their real-world existence because in the online world they are no longer bound to a wheelchair or bed or have missing limbs. They are free to explore different worlds, and in doing so can meet other people. This also helps alleviate their feelings of loneliness and segregation from physical communities due to their disabilities.
For individuals with social anxieties or disorders the allure of virtual communities in online gaming also offers an avenue where friendships can be formed without the pressures of having to read social cues in the real world. Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder for instance often struggle to make friends in real life as they are socially awkward and struggle to read non-verbal social cues. Individuals who fall into this category also have a higher propensity for screen-based technologies. While there are few studies to date that have definitively proved that people with ASD thrive in online gaming communities, it could be argued that because these virtual communities provide a space that offer less pressure to behave in a socially acceptable way, they will gravitate more towards these communities. The virtual community provides a space for individuals with ASD to feel more included and to have social interactions on their terms which in turn could help them to feel less lonely and anxious. In studies performed by Sundberg (2018, p. 108) it was found that “almost forty-one present (40.5%) of the participants with ASD and 34.8% of the control group indicate that they had met a close friend through an online game”. Taking into account that the same study showed that most individuals with ASD reported not having a best friend, the results showing that those who played online games made a close friend through the game is fairly significant.
While many scholars lament the evils of virtual communities in diluting the social bonds that are built through physical interactions, one could argue that virtual communities offer a space for individuals experiencing loneliness to find other individuals to connect with. Online gaming communities are one of these spaces, and as Martoncik and Loksa (2016) discuss in their article, “Lonely individuals are attracted to the online environment and the social interaction in it” (p. 128) Virtual communities such as the guilds in World of Warcraft offer a place for people with social anxiety to explore a space where they can remain relatively anonymous, and because there is no physical interaction, they can be themselves because they are in the company of individuals who may not even know that they have a social disorder, therefore allowing them to be themselves without fear of judgement. For people with social anxieties the lack of physical interaction reduces their anxieties and enable them to connect with others, be more open and friendly and form relationships on their terms. It is a place where they can demonstrate their technical prowess and gain admiration from others, something that may not happen in real-life.
Online computer games offer a form of escapism that is alluring to individuals who have to face social pressures and possible discrimination based on what gender they identify with, their race, physical disability or mental disorders. MMO games like World of Warcraft require gamers to learn and master certain activities. When an activity is mastered it offers the gamer a sense of achievement, which is another motivating factor driving individuals to these games. While playing the game and mastering the activity or skill, the player is full immersed in the game and forget about their problems and what’s happening in real life. This valuable break from the worries in their real lives help gamers to regroup and look at problems from a different angle. It is this sense of accomplishment that help gamers to overcome their anxieties around their mental disorders and disabilities and refreshes them to take on another day. It also offers them an avenue to socialise with other individuals in an area devoid of the issues they may face on a daily basis. As Frostling-Henningsson (2009, p. 561) so eloquently states “Since virtual worlds replace the real with a simulacrum, the references to reality dissolve. This allows gamers to evaluate other gamers on personal qualities and gaming style rather than on physical appearance.”
Online gaming communities such as the guilds found in World of Warcraft provide opportunities for marginalised youth and adults with certain social disorders, to connect with other like-minded individuals to form communities and foster lasting friendships. This new ‘third place’ that is formed through virtual communities allow like-minded individuals to connect and form friendships. These friendships often extend to the offline world and friends formed through these avenues will often express real concern and offer help in the real world to people they’ve met online. For adolescents who are not particularly interested in participating in sports, online games offer a place where they can meet up with others and form friendships. People with ASD and physical disabilities also find that virtual communities offer a space where they can be themselves and perform activities, which they may not be able to do in the real world. While some scholars may fear that online gaming communities are threatening society by drawing individuals away from physical interactions and community building, the counter argument can be made that stronger bonds are formed online as gamers are free to be themselves and explore their identities in a safe environment without the fear of being judged by their physical appearance.
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